ESSD consultant: Prepare to lose school funds

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

EUREKA SPRINGS -- Dr. Diana Julian, the consultant with McPherson & Jacobson who helped the Eureka Springs School District with its recent superintendent search, was back May 23 at a special meeting to advise the school board and administrators on finances and enrollments, at the request of Superintendent Curtis Turner.

"As a deputy commissioner with the state, I have helped many school districts across the state to get out of fiscal and academic distress," she told officials. she complimented them on being "very proactive" in looking at these issues early.

She said the district is ending the year with a good balance and is lucky to have a superintendent who has been involved with the state education department and helped other school districts with these issues also.

Because of the Eureka Springs and Fountain Lake school districts' lawsuit against the state over keeping their millage in their local districts instead of turning it over to the state for redistribution, and Eureka's large drop in enrollments between this year and last, Julian said, "You're at the point where you're going to have to start watching. You need to view the lawsuit as if you're going to lose it."

She said the actual figure of students lost is 101. Looking at third-quarter average daily membership, the district had 645.56 students in 2010-11 and 544.71 in 2011-12.

"That's a pretty drastic drop in one year, and that's $600,000 for the school district," Julian said, but added this kind of loss is happening in small towns all over Arkansas.

Looking at the school budget she hadn't found "a lot of fat."

"Eighty percent of your budget is personnel, so deep cuts will have to be in personnel."

The district has made some cuts through attrition and others through reduction-in-force layoffs and non-renewal of contracts.

She made several suggestions for attracting and retaining students and remaining financially sound.

One is to advertise the good things, such as some of the highest test scores in the state. Another is to "do away with policies that no longer serve and are not working," and "don't make a policy if you're not going to follow it."

She urged the district assign someone to watch NSLA (National School Lunch Act, which offers the free and reduced lunch program) and Title I (monies for specific programs) funds.

Julian said there is a tendency to keep funding things because "that's the way it's always been done" rather than enforcing efficiency and accountability.

She said the district needs an ALE (Alternative Learning Environment) program on campus, to gain back students it lost to other schools when it suspended the program last year.

She recommended cutting out summer school except for needed recovery classes, and that has been done this year.

She also recommended not adding an additional counselor, as the principals had requested. She said the district's two are already more than the state requires, and their workload can be spread out.

She recommended the district not cut any personnel next year, but trim everything as much as possible and operate "lean and mean."

Turner said test scores are coming out in two weeks, and he would like Julian to come back, "to look at what we've done well and what to do to build on it."

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