This year, the Cedar Rapids Community School District is responsible for 16,778 students.
That’s a 5.5 percent dip since 2008-09, the last time the district’s saw a year-to-year enrollment increase. The state funding formula allots $6,001 per pupil for the 2013 fiscal year, up from $5,883 in 2012.
Looking at the school system as a business, with students as its customers, those are not promising numbers.
Even with the state uptick, the charge for the district has become finding ways of “doing more with less,” said Steve Graham, the school system’s executive director of business services.
“Because of enrollment decline, those goose eggs for state growth were actually negative growth years for the school district,” he said. “Revenue growth is low to nonexistent for this school district from the state of Iowa.”
Because school funding lags a year, in that funding for the current fiscal year is based on the last year’s student numbers, it can create headaches for administrators.
“We’re always a year behind on that funding,” said Mary Ellen Maske, the district’s associate superintendent. “For every student that we don’t have in the district, we’re losing that $5,883 per student — that’s the amount of money that we don’t have.
“We have to look forward when we’re funding for the next school year. If we have that declining enrollment, we’re going to have less money in the general budget to spend.”
The Cedar Rapids district has $178.1 million budgeted in its general fund revenue for the current fiscal year and $146.9 million, or 82.48 percent, earmarked for salaries and benefits. The school system employs more than 2,800 administrators, teachers and support staff.
Graham describes his job as “to let (Superintendent Dave Benson) know what options we have when it comes to resources. I’m supplying the information for the decision to be made.”
Those choices have included recommending the district’s Board of Education approve the purchase of a $57,000 sculpture in the district’s Educational Leadership and Support Center — a proposal he ultimately killed earlier this year before board members could vote on it — and recommending the closure of Monroe and Polk elementary schools.
In Graham’s view, running a school district is an increasingly difficult task as resources diminish. Despite historically being one of the largest parts of the state of Iowa’s budget expenditures, kindergarten-through-grade-12 education dollars have been harder to come by for the Cedar Rapids school. After one year of receiving zero percent allowable growth, the change in the state’s funding formula for school districts — which is based on student enrollment — Iowa schools will receive 2 percent for the current fiscal year.
One year of no allowable growth creates a one-two punch when paired with fewer students in the district’s classrooms, which means even fewer net dollars coming into the district from the state, Graham said.
For Benson, running the district means balancing two spending principles: historic and zero-based. Operational costs, such as utilities, are based on known “historic spending patterns,” whereas staffing and programming are zero-based.
Those costs are under the microscope when administrators begin to seek efficiencies.
“We try every year to look very closely at our zero-based budget side to see where we can become more efficient,” he said.
Maske, whose purview centers on the district’s 21 elementary schools as well as early learning programs and middle school professional development, doesn’t hesitate to justify those personnel expenditures.
“We believe that a highly trained staff member is a valuable resource for our students,” she said. “They are a valuable, valuable resource, and we want to make sure that we are providing the best instruction we can for all of our students.”
Though that may be the intent, many community members took issue with leaders’ methods when they delivered the directive to close Monroe and Polk — the latter of which had among the district’s highest rates of students receiving free and reduced price meals and a passionate outcry of citizens trying to stave off its demise.
Shuttering the two buildings was projected to save $1.25 million for the district, though Polk is now open as an alternative education center.
Graham, though he did not make the final decision, defends the action.
“That was a very responsible thing for the district to do to maintain its capacity and deal with declining enrollment,” he said, stating a view he suggested much of the community now holds about the closings. “I feel good that we did what needed to be done and provided parents a reasonable option for their children.”
Benson may be “the CEO,” but a school district doesn’t take raw materials to churn out and sell a new product. Profit is not the superintendent’s goal.
“Our bottom line that would equate to a profit-and-loss sheet for a business is student growth,” he said. “We really should be judged on, ‘Did a student grow academically over a year’s worth of education?’”