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Fine tuning ICCSD’s budget

School board looks at ways to reduce operational costs

Iowa City– The Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) released its third quarter budget report at the district’s May 26 school board meeting.
Overall, the district budget is where it should be, according to Chief Financial Officer Craig Hansel. Board members worried, however, about how ICCSD stacked up against other similar-sized districts in several cost categories, including support staff and operational costs.
Hansel said support staff costs tend to be higher in large districts because of the additional resources, such as dropout prevention and extra counseling, needed for students.
“I think it’s just inherent to larger, metropolitan districts,” he said.
Director Brian Kirschling focused on operational costs, for which the district fell in the middle of the pack of comparable-sized districts. He specifically pointed out Ankeny schools, which ranked as one of the most efficient in that category.
Hansel, who previously worked as Ankeny’s CFO before coming to Iowa City, said the reason is because Ankeny has many newer buildings compared to the Iowa City district, which has a large number of schools that are older– thus harder to clean and maintain, and are less energy efficient.
“It’s not that we’re inefficient, we’re inefficient because of our infrastructure we have in place,” Hansel said.
He also noted that Ankeny has approximately 1,200 fewer elementary students, but has just 10 elementary schools compared to Iowa City’s 19 elementary schools.
The fact that the district has such drastic differences in elementary school sizes has contributed to the higher operational costs. Smaller schools tend to cost more to operate, Hansel said, because it’s easier to staff larger elementary schools.
“We have inefficiencies because of the small number of students we serve in some buildings,” he said.
Maintaining small class sizes has been an issue of importance for parents and the district for quite some time, and balancing class sizes and costs remains a concern as enrollment projections continue to increase.
Director Tuyet Baruah wondered when the district would start having discussions about its priorities.
“We want to maintain low classroom sizes but at the same time we have competing pressures with the budget and competing resources. We can’t have our cake and eat it too,” she said.
Superintendent Stephen Murley said it was likely the conversation would begin next year as the lower-than-preferred state aid is expected to cause an increase in some class sizes. He added that the district tries to keep core class enrollment as low as possible, but it becomes a trade-off as elective class sizes continue to grow.
According to Chief Academic Officer Becky Furlong, there are close to 30 classes that will start next year with one or two students over the desired class sizes set by the board.
The ICCSD has been working to increase its unspent balance, or the amount of budget money not spent by the end of the year, to 5 percent by 2019. The report estimated that the balance would be closer to 4.1 percent, which concerned several directors.
Baruah said the board prefers to have a surplus between five and 10 percent, to better protect the district from any financial issues outside its control.
She asked if the administration had looked into ways the district could reach that goal sooner than projected.
Hansel responded that administration often discusses where they can find cost savings, and that staffing could be one of those areas. He said the administration needs to make sure the district is getting the most from the employees they already have and stay mindful of staffing levels.
However, Hansel also added that the district had one of the lowest costs when it came to cost of administration, ranking 338 out of 346 districts.
“Really it all boils down to [the fact that] we’re in the people business,” Hansel said. “Controlling employee costs is where it’s at for us.”