West Ada dips into savings to balance budget

The West Ada School District’s two new board members experienced a baptism by fire during their first meeting Tuesday.

Klopfenstein swearing in
Ed Klopfenstein recited the oath of office Tuesday.

Just moments after being sworn in, Ed Klopfenstein and Steve Smylie participated in a budget hearing that painted a detailed portrait of the financial difficulties facing the state’s largest school district.

Board members voted to dip into their savings to the tune of nearly $4 million to help balance the 2016-17 budget.

Deficit spending will help pay staffers, accommodate an estimated increase of 500 new students and open two new schools, district leaders said.

Existing board members said some of the blame for budget shortfall rests with the Legislature. Even though the Legislature boosted K-12 general fund spending by 7.4 percent this year and returned discretionary funding to 2009 levels, trustee Mike Vuittonet said the district can’t pay its 2016 expenses with 2009 funding levels.

“We’re still deficit spending,” said Vuittonet, the senior member of the board. “We have — what — 3,000 more kids and we’re at 2009 levels and we haven’t accounted for any kind of inflation.”

Smylie swearing in (1)
Steve Smylie recites the oath of office Tuesday night in Meridian.

If the district spends $4 million of savings, West Ada’s fund balance is projected to drop from nearly $9.9 million to about $5.8 million.

A $5.8 million fund balance would fall below West Ada’s goal of maintaining a 9 percent reserve. However, Chief Financial Officer Debbie Arstein expressed optimism that the district could save money throughout the year and would not need to spend the full budgeted amount.

At the end of the hearing, trustees voted to increase the district’s general fund budget by more than $10 million next year. The 2016-17 budget calls for $208.6 million in maintenance and operations spending, up from $198.5 million.

That bump in funding corresponds to a 5.08 percent increase.

The district will spend $5.2 million of the increase on salaries and benefits. The costs of opening two new schools, projected increases in transportation, utilities and health care costs and the price of restoring some “C-team” middle school athletics account for the rest of the increase.

Klopfenstein and Smylie abstained from voting on the budget, citing their newness and unfamiliarity with the district’s financial standing. They were just appointed last week, and were unable to participate in budget workshops leading up to Tuesday’s hearing.

“I have a steep learning curve and I hope a lot of you will forgive me,” Smylie said at the end of the meeting. “I’m excited about this position, I’m open to input and I have a lot to learn. The best thing I can do is listen.”

District leaders expect to send their budget documents to the state for certification at the end of the week. The new budget year begins July 1.

The two school board openings were created when district patrons voted to recall former board members Tina Dean and Carol Sayles during the May 17 primary election. The recall followed a year of turmoil within West Ada’s leadership ranks — highlighted by the sudden resignation of former Superintendent Linda Clark.

Within a month of the recall, the board was back to full strength and began looking to the future — starting with next year’s school budget.