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Local

As budget cuts linger, school board mulls walk zone increase

Increase of 2 mile hike for elementary students has $87K cost savings

Travis Padget, president of the NCSD board, discusses the impact of increasing walk zones during a board work session Monday night at the EJH Beard Administration Building. The district needs to consider all options to get the budget back in line Padget said.
Travis Padget, president of the NCSD board, discusses the impact of increasing walk zones during a board work session Monday night at the EJH Beard Administration Building. The district needs to consider all options to get the budget back in line Padget said.

Students in the Newton Community School District could be facing a long walk to school next year as the district looks to make cuts to bring its budget in line.

During a work session Monday night following the regularly scheduled board meeting, members of the NCSD board met with administration staff and principals at the EJH Beard Administration Center in Newton to discuss possible cuts to the district’s budget.

One of the items on the chopping block could be bus routes if the board chooses to expand the walk zone for students in the district. NCSD students in grades K-4 are eligible to ride the bus to school if they live more than a half mile the school, while students in grades 5-12 must live one mile from school to qualify for bus service. That distance is significantly shorter than what the state of Iowa requires, district administrators said Monday night.

The state of Iowa requires districts to provide bus service for students in grades K-8 who live more than two miles from their school, and for high school students living more than three miles from their school. Curt Roorda, the district’s transportation director, said increasing the size of the walk zone will allow the district to eliminate as many as three or four bus routes, providing a potential cost savings of $87,000 to the district. The move would mean several bus drivers may see their positions eliminated as the district restructures routes, Roorda said.

Jim Gilbert, principal at Aurora Heights Elementary, said he has concerns about increasing the size of the walk zones, noting that for years board members have pushed to shrink walk zones because of safety concerns for the district’s youngest pupils. The decision to change the walk zones belongs in the hands of board members, not administrative staff, Gilbert said.

“Transportation is a big thing, if we’re going to increase the walk zones to two to three miles after years of the board telling us to get our walk zones as small as possible, that’s a board discretion decision,” Gilbert said.

NCSD board president Travis Padget said board members need input from administrators as they look to right the ship and get the district’s budget back on track. On Monday, Padget said the board was looking to reduce the district’s overall budget by $742,000 as they head into budget season. State law requires the district to submit its annual budget no later than April 15 of this year. Board members are willing to consider all options to ease the district’s budget woes, Padget said.

“We have a dollar amount that we need to get to, if we can do that by changing bus routes or by getting rid of a magazine, we need to consider that,” Padget said.

According to Padget, the district has “been kicking the can down the road” for too long in the face of decreasing state funding. With the state of Iowa in the midst of its own budget concerns as legislators look to make up a $37 million shortfall of their own, the state has provided school districts with only moderate increases, including a 1.1 percent increase last year. District officials say that increase doesn’t come close to covering cost of living increases, including raises to certified staff. The district approved a 2 percent raise for the 2017-18 school year, as well as an additional 2 percent raise in the 2018-19 school year, increases that Callaghan said have cost the district an additional $500,000 to $700,000. More than 80 percent of the district’s budget is labor costs, according to Gayle Isaac, the district’s director of business services.

“The only way to correct this is to not spend more than you’re authorized to spend,” Isaac said. “We’ve made budget reductions every year, but the settlements (to staff) continue to cost more than the revenue we receive.”

Board members will weigh all the options before making a final decision on shrinking the size of the walk zones, Padget said, including looking at whether or not the move would hurt attendance. Even if the walk zones aren’t increased next year, Padget said the option may remain on the table. Callaghan said the district will need to look at the issue closely before making a decision.

“That’s why Curt [Roorda] is here; we wanted specifics,” Callaghan said. “I wanted him to go back and look at these routes.”

Contact David Dolmage at 641-792-3121 ext. 6532 or ddolmage@newtondailynews.com

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