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Oak Ridge R-6 School District holds town hall to discuss financial woes

The Oak Ridge R-6 School District held a town hall meeting on Jan. 9 in the school cafeteria to discuss the District’s current financial issues. More than 100 parents, employees, and community members attended the meeting.

Superintendent Adrian Eftink started the meeting by dispelling a rumor that persisted from the first town hall meeting held in November. “We are not going to be Jackson R-2 Schools,” Eftink said. He added that the District is going to do everything in its power to stay the Oak Ridge R-6 School District.

The District is currently running at a deficit, with both operations and salaries costing more than the District is receiving in revenue. The District has been running at a deficit for four of the past six school years. One of the years when the District didn’t run on a deficit was due to the bond passing in 2018.

Teachers’ salaries have run at a deficit compared to the money received from the state for all six years shown to the attendees. Eftink said that unless you’re in a low-income school district, local tax revenue usually has to be used to fully fund teachers’ salaries.

The District’s strategic plan calls for having a balanced budget by 2021. “We have about $600,000 in the bank at the beginning of the year, and we knew we were deficit spending,” Eftink said. “We need to make sure that next year we have the money in the bank so we can keep the school rolling.”

Eftink predicts that this year, despite already making $127,000 in cuts, the District will have around $360,000 in deficit spending. He said the only solutions to this problem are to make more cuts, raise taxes or do both. “If we didn’t do anything, we would start borrowing money to keep this place running this next summer,” Eftink said.

Projections show that the District would have to increase taxes by a $1.50 levy for a total tax levy of $5.15 to have a balanced budget over the next five years without any additional cuts. The projections also show that no amount of cuts up to $450,000, without a tax increase, will result in a balanced budget for a sustainable period of time.

“We have enough to make it through next year with our current revenue and expenses, but after that we would have to start borrowing money,” Eftink said. “You have to raise your taxes then.”

The School Board has looked at what would be cut from the District if they made a balanced budget for next year without any tax increase (totaling $360,000 in cuts) or with a tax increase of $0.32 ($260,000 in cuts). Eftink said the Board currently has the option to increase taxes by $0.32 without going to a vote on the ballot. That increase would result in about $100,000 in additional revenue.

If there were $260,000 worth of cuts, cuts would be made on the line-item budgets for elementary instruction, senior high instruction, special education, supplemental instruction (Title 1), professional development and building upkeep.

If there were $360,000 worth of cuts, the budget for nursing services, library services, school buses, the after-school program and area career centers would also see reductions.

Eftink said the cuts are primarily based in departments that are running at a deficit, including special education. “Special education is funded from the state at about a third of the total cost the District is currently spending,” he said. Other programs (such as summer school and athletics) raise more money than they cost, so they wouldn’t receive any cuts.

The $260,000 cuts include eliminating six staff positions, while the $360,000 cuts include nine and a half positions eliminated. “The last time we were really revenue neutral, as far as staffing, was 2003,” Eftink said. “So this is taking staffing back to what it looked like in 2003. That’s what we looked at – what programs did we have in 2003; what were we offering as a School District?”

Eftink added that he couldn’t talk about specifics about what staffing changes would occur, since it isn’t finalized. He added that losing that many staff members would be “catastrophic.”

The District currently has a tax levy of $3.68. Eftink said for a comparable district, an increase of about $1 is advised. At a $1 increase, $300,000 in cuts would be needed to stay sustainable.

“Some things that are hindering us right now, which is a good thing for Oak Ridge, is that as your salaries keep going up, our money that we get from the state goes down – and it’s been going up the last three years extensively,” Eftink said.

He also said that he has to wait until after the 2020 census to apply for big grants that have helped the District in the past. Currently, the District doesn’t qualify based on the last census’ number. “I went down last January and tried to apply for the 21st Century grant and they sent me home,” Eftink said. Based on their current census number, they told Eftink that Oak Ridge was an “affluent school district.”

Eftink received questions about how other school districts could survive with lower tax rates. He responded by saying that having big corporations in your District raises more tax revenue, leaving less of the burden on residents. He added that he was grateful that Paving Pros stayed in District. “If they left, it would bring revenues down significantly,” Eftink said.

He also received questions about whether the state will come to help the District. Eftink said he was in contact with people from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and they helped them come up with the projections shared at the meeting.

He added that the state doesn’t really step in until the District is down to less than 5 percent reserves. “At the end of this year, we’ll have nine percent reserves,” he said. “We started with 16 percent this year.”

Similarly, if reading intervention is cut, the District will not receive more state funding to help the students until the students’ scores get worse. “It’s a setup for failure,” Eftink said.

Eftink said he would be happy to discuss these issues with citizens on a one-to-one basis, if anyone has questions. “Moving forward, the School Board is going to have some hard decisions they have to make and we’re going to have to work through that,” he said.

Jay Forness covers education, county government and community events for The Cash-Book Journal. He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in multimedia journalism and has lived in Jackson for the past four years. He can be reached at cbjedit@socket.net.

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