With the state Legislature in special session and school district enrollment numbers typically not firmed up until the fall, Westonka school leaders still found themselves on more stable ground than they had last year when preparing the budget: all signs have been pointing to a more normal year to come, and that assumption is feeding subsidiary assumptions around revenues and expenditures.

Expectation of restored enrollment, a final infusion of nearly $635,000 in federal relief money (alongside an expected doubling of local revenues back to their normal levels) is buoying the next year’s budget for the Westonka school district.

Board members approved the district’s 2021-2022 adopted budget June 7; that budget projects $34.8 million in general fund revenues and $34.2 million in expenditures and also allows for about $255,000 to be added to the district’s general fund reserves.

BIGGEST RISK: ENROLLMENT

When Westonka approved its revised budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year in February, the district was reflecting $520,700 loss in state aid thanks to a pandemic-driven decline in enrollment that showed a loss of about 80 students from initial projections made the previous June.

Enrollment for the coming year is the biggest risk in the new budget, said Westonka superintendent Kevin Borg. The district is expecting its enrollment numbers to bounce back in fall, but administrators are erring on the side of caution in projecting a lower figure than what recent, pre-pandemic years may have forecast.

Westonka had 2,439 students enrolled during the most recent school year, compared to 2,482 in 2019-2020. Projections for this fall anticipate a total enrollment of 2,471 students.

“With enrollment, we had a choice of trying to find a balance versus going too conservative or too much the other way, where you could add programs or make cuts that weren’t necessary,” said Borg. “I think to cut programs based on projections, and with the fund balance we have, is not a wise effort.”

Westonka is forecasting a slight bump to its fund balance for next year after having to dip into it each of the past five years. The $3.49 million now being projected in reserves for next year would represent 10.19 percent of general fund expenditures, up from 9.37 percent this past year.

At the same time the school board approved last year’s revised budget, its members also had committed the district to making $250,000 in cuts going into this budget cycle. Those cuts have already been made, Borg revealed at an earlier meeting, and were made relatively painlessly through retirements and the elimination of one-time staffing additions that were specific to the pandemic year.

Additional to expected increases next year of 1.5 percent in both the state General Education Aid formula and other state categorical aid, school officials are forecasting the district’s local revenues to recover to pre-pandemic levels.

Restricted attendance at sporting and other even, followed by a complete shutdown for events in the fall, meant that Westonka collected only about $478,000 in local revenues last year. But with the end of all COVID-19 restrictions last month and the likelihood of a more normal year to come, the district is expecting an also more normal amount of $900,600 in this category.

School leaders are also expressing optimism for Westonka’s community education department, which has taken the heaviest hit over the past 15 months.

“The virus restrictions of holding public events hit our community ed department the worst,” said Kathy Miller, finance director for Westonka Schools. Going into this year, the district is forecasting a loss of about $304,000 in this area. But Miller said she was hopeful that come February, when the board approves the revised budget, things will come out a little better.

“I feel like [those in the community ed department] are in a really solid place to resume normalcy and their mission is to regrow and erase the deficit and move forward,” she said.

School officials are saying that the adopted budget for 2021-2022 is one that will want a close eye to it, and superintendent Borg cautioned that “some of these funds that are balancing our budget are one-time dollars.”

The $635,000 in ESSER III funds that is above and beyond what the district would normally get in federal revenues will fall off after this year.

“We’re going to have to watch where we are,” said Borg, who said adjustments may have to be made later on depending on enrollment, federal dollars and what comes out of the state Legislature’s special session.

“That’s another reason that could cause some adjustment: if those [federal dollars] don’t move forward,” he said. “And they won’t; that amount of federal funds won’t move forward [beyond this year]. But whether we can find some efficiencies again this year or whether our enrollment does better, then we can adapt that way.”

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