Dan Hollar and Nancy Landon have had a lot of homework lately. Hollar, public affairs administrator, and Landon, budget and finance administrator, both with the Boise School District, have been studying the numbers that make up the budget for the second-largest public school district in Idaho (Meridian is the largest). While Hollar and Landon don't worry too much about the 2011-2012 school year, they have deep concerns about 2012-2013 and whether residents will make what they call "intelligent" votes in a supplemental levy election set for Tuesday, Aug. 30.
How long have you been crunching numbers?
Landon: About 20 years. I worked at the State Department of Education before coming to the Boise School District. I've been here 14 years.
When is your department busiest?
Landon: We begin the budget process in November for the following year, but I would have to say that we're busiest from the end of the legislative session until the end of August.
Has the Boise School Board of Trustees officially approved the budget for 2011-2012?
Landon: Yes. Now we're rolling it out to all of our budget officers.
Are budget officers the equivalent of department heads?
Landon: That's right. There are about 30. Additionally, each principal is a budget officer because every school has its own budget.
Is the budget set in stone for the next year?</i>
Landon: Yes, but budget officers have the ability of moving money around within their department.
Hollar: Those department budgets have really been drastically cut over the last several years, so when you say, "set in stone," well, that stone has been rolling downhill.
How many schools are in the district now?
Hollar: Approximately 50: five high schools, eight junior highs, 32 elementary schools. Plus we have the ASCENT [Alternative Students Courageously Exploring New Territory] program, a tech center, and the Madison pre-school.
Didn't you close another school this past year?
Hollar: The Boise Language Academy operated at Jackson Elementary. It's for students who don't have English as their primary language. We'll continue to operate that program at two locations: Hillside Junior and Borah High.
What happens to Jackson Elementary?
Hollar: We're basically mothballing it. The old Franklin and Cole elementary schools are still for sale, but as everyone knows, property values have gone down. We have not had anyone come forward to offer us a fair value for them yet. When those properties are eventually sold, the funds will go toward our facilities budget.
Are you aware of any extra general funds that might come to the district from the state's fiscal year-end surplus?
Landon: We should know that figure any day now. But we don't want to use those funds for the 2011-2012 school year. We have already balanced our budget for that year.
Can you bank the funds?
Landon: Absolutely. Those funds will definitely come into play when we talk about the levy that we're going to put before voters.
When does the board of trustees make a final decision on a levy?
Hollar: They will need to set an amount at their Monday, July 11 meeting. So those extra funds from the state will be a major factor in determining the amount of the supplemental levy.
Do you already know for a fact that there will be a levy election on Tuesday, Aug. 30?
Hollar: Yes. The board made that decision in April.
Do you know the amount of the levy yet?
Hollar: We know the range. It will be between $15 million and $17 million. I don't want to second-guess the board, because they will make the final decision. When we look to the 2012-2013 school year, it's very dire.
How do you know that already?
Hollar: We're looking at a deficit of $17.5 million. Plus, we're looking at projected funding, the values of the district's properties and the impact of the new Luna proposals.
What are some examples of that?
Landon: This year, they reduced all schools' salary appropriations by 1.67 percent. Next year, it kicks up to a 4.05 percent reduction, and the reduction continues to grow in the next five years.
But aren't there things you can do right now to safeguard against those reductions?
Landon: In the new 2011-2012 budget, we're using about $4 million in one-time dollars from the feds, and we already know that those funds aren't going to be there in 2012-2013. The other thing is, we're spending down much of our savings account. That's about $8.5 million.
Will you drain that account?
Landon: We're going to retain a 5.5 percent reserve. That's very low for a district of our size. It's not even the equivalent of one month of operating costs.
How do you prepare for a levy vote?
Hollar: It's about getting the facts out. The numbers are overwhelming and quite complex, but it's also about how well the district is performing.
But isn't it fair to say that this is not your typical levy vote this year? Do you think some politics came into play during a recent levy vote in the Meridian School District?
Hollar: We want a vote to be an intelligent vote. We wouldn't be asking for this without a complete understanding of what's at stake. We're talking about maintaining class sizes and retaining teachers so that we can hopefully avoid staff cuts. These are not scare tactics. These are the realities in which we live.
Landon: You really need to look at how dependent school districts have become on supplemental levies. Since 2006, there has been something like 60 percent more supplemental levies across the state. What you're seeing is a shift of support from the state Legislature to the voters. And the voters in most cases are saying yes. Almost 83 percent of supplemental levies do pass.
How long has it been since you bought new textbooks?
Hollar: It's been two years.
Landon: We put $50,000 in the next budget for new library books. That's less than $2 per kid. We wiped out the library budget last year, and they desperately need replacement books.
Do you have a sense of how many lottery dollars are coming into the district?
Landon: Let me tell you what's going on with the lottery. Prior to the economic downturn, the district used to get about $1.6 million from the lottery each year. We would use that money for a much-needed boiler or new roof. Two years ago, the state decided to earmark the money as part of the general fund. We are now going into year three of not receiving those lottery funds.
Other than salaries, what are your big-ticket expenses?
Landon: Health coverage is a major expense.
Who is your carrier?
Landon: Regence Blue Shield.
Hollar: We require all of our employees to participate in a wellness program. If they don't, they have to pay a higher deductible and higher co-pays.
How do you project student enrollment?
Hollar: Our enrollment has continued to increase over the last several years. Lately, we have seen a bump in our early grades, so that bump should continue through our system over the years. We have seen increases not only in our traditional students, but also a big increase in our ELL [English Language Learner] students. They provide such a rich opportunity for our district, but they also provide challenges to our district's teaching staff.
Is the cost per student any higher for ELL students?
Landon: We look at the full population when we do our cost per student. We don't break out the ELL kids, because they could easily be in a math class, for example, with all of the other kids.
What is your overall cost per student in the district?
Landon: For the last school year, it was $8,186, and I'm pretty sure it will be down to about $7,800 in the next year. A lot of people say Boise spends a lot more compared to the rest of the state, but Boise is about 45th in the state among all school districts. That puts us right in the middle.
You must spend a lot of your time in front of spreadsheets with a calculator nearby, but how do these huge budgets translate to students?
Landon: To be honest, I work a lot with the numbers.
But are you a mom?
Landon: I am. For me, what's most important is the investment in quality education, and that means quality teachers, a quality curriculum and adequate class sizes. It's really about everybody having an equal opportunity to be successful.