Lisbon schools on solid footing

LISBON — Last year at this time the Lisbon school board was asking district voters to approve a 1 percent income tax they said was needed to head off a looming budget deficit.

Voters rejected the income tax in the November 2016 election and again in the May primary election, and school officials reported at last week’s board meeting the district’s fortunes have improved considerably. So now, instead of a deficit, the district’s latest five-year forecast shows budget surpluses steadily increasing to $5.8 million in 2022.

“Could we have predicted this? No,” said Superintendent Joseph Siefke, who attributed the turnabout to an increase in enrollment, cost-cutting moves “and a little bit of luck.”

“It looks like we’ve righted the ship, and we have no intention of going back to the ballot anytime soon” with a proposed tax increase, he said.

The state requires districts to prepare five-year financial forecasts every May and October, and the pre-2017 financial forecasts before showed Lisbon’s considerable carryover balance would be gone and the district with a budget deficit in 2019.

“The numbers we had when we were looking at a deficit were the numbers that were available at the time,” said Board President Gene Gallo.

So what changed?

Several things, with the biggest being an unexpected increase in enrollment among children who live in the district, according to school Treasurer Vickie Browning-Prowitt. State funding is allocated on a per student basis and other factors, but districts are “guaranteed” they will not lose funding should enrollment decline.

Lisbon was on the state guarantee because it has been steadily losing students for the past 20 years, with enrollment dropping from 1,330 in 1996 to 860 in 2015-16. Last year, however, enrollment among children who live in the district increased by 33 students, which removed Lisbon from the state guarantee and allowed the district to be compensated on a per pupil basis.

This increased Lisbon’s state funding from $4.9 million in 2014-15 to $5.6 million this past school year. That number is expected to go to $5.8 million this year and continue increasing because of changes in the state funding formula that were included in the new two-year state budget, which took effect July 1.

Siefke said the district was also fortunate because it only spent $603,000 on contracted services for special needs students in 2016-17, resulting in a $500,000 savings from the previous year. The board also decided last year to resume providing preschool for special needs students instead of contracting out for the service, which saved $138,000.

Employee concessions also helped with the bottom line, Siefke said, noting that teachers in particular agreed to take a 1 percent wage increase over two years and to pay a larger share of their health insurance, resulting in a savings of $110,000.

The board has also eliminated teaching positions when possible, with staffing reduced from 70 to 61 over the past five years.

“Did we do some things along the way (to save money)? Yes we did,” Siefke said.

So what does he say to those residents who will take a cynical view after reading this story?

“I don’t think any of this was predicted or we wouldn’t have asked for the extra revenue, but this is the crazy world of state funding,” he said.