School administrators from the Joplin R-8 School District were hopeful on Monday evening – despite the fact they were delivering some very bad news.

Meeting adversity ‘head-on’

School administrators from the Joplin R-8 School District were hopeful on Monday evening – despite the fact they were delivering some very bad news.

The bad news is the same in Joplin as it is everywhere else. Budget cuts and shortfalls at the federal and state levels are filtering down to local districts, and Joplin – like Carthage – is going to have some tough choices to make this year and in the coming years.

Despite the adversity, the tone of the evening press conference was confident.

“What I want our community to know is that their schools are on very solid financial ground,” said Ashley Mickelthwaite, an R-8 School Board member. “We have been preparing for what is to come for the last several years.”

Mickelthwaite said the district would continue its trend of academic excellence even in the face of almost certain cuts to the district’s funding and lapses in its revenue.

“We are meeting our children’s needs in the classrooms and the teachers that teach them,” she said. “In spite of challenges coming our way, we are prepared to meet them head-on.

“We are not interested in taking a step backward or maintaining the status quo. We’re on a trajectory of improvement for our kids.”

R-8 Superintendent C.J. Huff had an equally hopeful attitude.

“I hope you didn’t come in here thinking we were going to paint a picture of doom and gloom and that the financial forecast is so bleak we’re not going to continue moving forward as a school district.”

It may be difficult to understand how the district can move forward. While the current budget crisis in the Missouri State Legislature has only portended dire news for school districts statewide in the coming years, miscalculations are leaving school districts hanging for the current year, as well. Huff noted that even though the R-8 district budgeted conservatively for the 2009-10 school year, they’re already about $1.3 million behind in state funding.

That figure represents a loss of about $400,000 in state sales tax funding, $621,000 in Foundation Formula funding, and another $300,000 in local property tax funding.

He also noted that funding from local property taxes will be a problem in the coming years.

“One of the first challenges that we’re going to have locally is the fact that this is a reassessment year,” he said. “We usually anticipate some increase in revenue as a result of local property taxes and reassessments.

“We’re not anticipating that to happen this year.”

Federal funding is expected to fall, as well. Joplin currently receives $7.9 million in federal dollars, but Huff noted that the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind could result in a cut to that figure. He noted as well that Safe Schools funding will be eliminated in the 2010-11 school year, which will require the district to find other ways to fund its Safe Schools program and salary its school resource officers.

Another $2.4 million will be pulled from under the district in the 2011-12 school year, when federal stimulus money used to prop up state general revenues runs out.

“That’s a void that’s going to have to be plugged,” he said.

And these cuts are just the beginning. Districts around the state are chewing their nails as the Missouri Legislature continues to debate its budget, but things certainly don’t look good for schools.

Huff pointed out many other areas where the state may cut funding. He noted programs like Parents as Teachers and Career Ladder may be cut, as well as funding for summer school, transportation and the Foundation Formula.

Huff said the district began contingency planning in the fall of 2009.

“We’ve not made any decisions at this level to make any cuts at this point,” he said. “However, we’re looking at contingency planning … and how we’re going to handle what is undoubtedly to come. The question is, what is it that’s coming?”

The district has made a number of preliminary decisions, and planned actions include:

• Reducing the central district office by 5-8 percent, including eliminating one assistant superintendent position.

• Reducing capital outlay by $1 million.

• Centralizing attendance secretary duties at the middle schools.

• Evaluating each and every vacancy in the district, and using attrition for a majority of the reductions.

“It was almost impossible that we wouldn’t eventually get to this point,” Huff said, indicating the economic crisis of the last few years. “There’s only so many dollars in the pot, and it can only be divided so many ways.

“It is our turn to pick up the ball and run with it,” he added. “It’s our turn to carry that load, and we’re certainly poised to do that.”

Huff said specific plans for the district will be announced in the coming weeks.