Schools gear up for new year

For many communities across the area, this week will mark the event dreaded by many kids and anticipated by many parents - the first day of school. While those parents and students are busy wrapping up their school shopping this week, school staff and administrators are busy preparing for a new year. And for many schools, this year brings some challenges. Deep budget cuts across the state have forced many schools to look at new options for making ends meet. For many, the state aid they had relied on to fund some of their programs is gone, and that has forced districts to get creative. Sharing administrators, classroom space and extracurricular activities such as sports programs, has become more commonplace in recent years, and this year even more schools are coming on board. The schools in our area who share a superintendent, for example, include Ansley and Arcadia, Callaway and Arnold, and Sargent and Loup County. Splitting the cost of an administrator’s salary can save each district thousands of dollars per year. And with so many districts facing huge cuts in state aid, those savings become necessary to survival. Schools have also found that sharing athletic programs can be a huge cost savings, and each year more districts are taking that avenue. This year, Sargent and Loup County will coop all sports programs except football. Ansley and Arcadia have co-oped wrestling programs for several years. Thedford-Sandhills and Callaway-Arnold now co-op all athletics. Last year, Arnold and Callaway even shared Prom - and by all accounts from both schools, was a successful venture. Pat Osmond, superintendent at Callaway and Arnold, may have one of the biggest challenges in the area as school begins this year. Both of the districts he supervises will have to operate with virtually no state aid in 2011-2012. In order to continue the ability to offer all classes to their students, Osmond has made arrangements for Arnold students to take classes through Callaway’s distance learning center. By the same token, Callaway students will be offered certain classes at the Arnold school. In the past, Arnold school district was forced to pay another district for those services. This year, Callaway and Arnold will basically just trade those classroom services, saving both districts money. Osmond explains that Arnold lost their state aid two years ago, and the district had already made the necessary adjustments for that before he assumed the role of superintendent. He says increased land valuations have made up for some of the lost revenue, along with teacher retirements. Callaway, on the other hand, received a good amount of state aid last year and will receive none this year. Osmond says that district is now looking at budget cuts and increased tax revenue from higher land valuations to make up that difference. “Because ag land has gone up, we knew this was going to happen - just not maybe to the extent we have seen,” Osmond says. “I expected to lose maybe half of our state aid this year, but I didn’t expect to lose it all.” Osmond says that when planning the budget he looks not only at the current year but the next year as well. He says the Callaway district is trimming wherever they can. As far as the sharing of athletic programs, Osmond doesn’t necessarily see that so much as a cost issue as a numbers issue. He says that the initial year of a sports co-op does mean an increase in expenses; new uniforms and increased transportation costs for getting students to and from practices being the primary factor. However, a co-op team typically means an increase in gate receipts. “The bottom line is no high school makes money on their athletics,” Osmond explains. I don’t see is so much as a money issue as a competitive issue - if you want to be competitive you have to increase the numbers.” Mike McCabe, superintendent of Ansley and Arcadia, says his schools are in much the same boat. In a recent interview with NTV News, McCabe said sharing classes is one way small schools are adapting to the budget cuts while still providing a broadened curriculum for their students. Because most districts have been aware that cuts in state aid were imminent, they have done what they could the past couple of years to put themselves in the best position for weathering the storm. For instance, Broken Bow Public Schools took advantage of federal stimulus funds that were available last year to update the district’s bus fleet. That update included the purchase of a newer, lower-mileage coach bus. The goal is to provide more reliable transportation and not have to spend money repairing older buses. The district also used stimulus monies to update the K-12 reading program, as well as the computer technology and wireless support. The maintenance staff at BBPS, like other districts in the area, have spent the summer months replacing and repairing equipment - including windows and HVAC systems. The district has also been working diligently to upgrade to more energy efficient lighting in every building, and will have that accomplished before school begins next week. BBPS Superintendent Dr. Virginia Moon notes that even though her district did not lose all state aid, it did take a significant cut. She says her staff is currently in the process of reviewing the budget - line by line, service by service - to see how they can be more efficient. “We are slimming down every place we can to try to keep from having to cut teachers,” Dr. Moon explained. “So far we have not had to do that.” Another area BBPS has trimmed involves the use of outside contract services. “We are trying to provide as many services in-house as possible,” says Dr. Moon. Cutting where they can while continuing to provide quality services is the common ground of all these school administrators. It is a task even more necessary, and more difficult, for rural schools. “It’s not always money that is the issue,” says Osmond. “It’s also offering a quality instructional program. It’s pretty hard to offer an advanced math class if you only have one or two students in the class.” No doubt, staff and administrators across the area are busy this week preparing for a new year - and new challenges.