The Waconia School District submitted its updated statutory operating debt (SOD) recovery plan to the Minnesota Department of Education last week. The school board approved the plan and reviewed mid-year budget numbers and future budget assumptions at their Jan. 25 meeting.

An updated debt recovery plan must be filed annually with the state until the local district removes itself from a substantial operating deficit that was first identified during the 2018-2019 school year.

As reported previously, the condition was driven largely by a shortcoming in state funding due to a change in the state’s special education funding formula. At its peak, the deficit exceeded $6.4 million. Under Minnesota statute, the school board must avoid further deficit spending and maintain an operating plan that reflects progress toward reducing the school district’s deficit.

Through the implementation of some $2 million in budget cuts, the operating deficit declined to $6.2 million last year and is expected to drop to $5.1 million at the end of this fiscal year. With an influx of new revenue from the voter-approved operating levy last fall, the deficit is expected to fall to $2.3 million in 2022, and the district could be technically out of SOD by 2023 – although a fund balance isn’t projected until 2024.

Some of the variables in the plan include student enrollment, future state funding and other revenues, staffing and other expenditures, the level of savings through attrition, and other potential factors and contingencies.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic presents its own set of circumstances in terms of student enrollment, the level of education funding, and costs – even savings – related to delivering different models of learning.

In other business last week, the school board reviewed its current learning model plans posed by the pandemic. Early childhood students through grade 5 went back to in-person learning Jan. 19, while middle school and high school students remain in an online, or distance learning model for now.

Under the current plan, grades 6-8 are scheduled to return to a hybrid model, a blend of in-person classes and distance learning, Feb. 16 at the midpoint of the third quarter. As it stands now, students in grades 9-12 will return to the hybrid or even an in-person model on March 16, right after spring break.

Again, several factors play into the decision-making process, including virus infection rates in the county, potential outbreaks in class learning pods, the number of teachers and students in quarantine, and the state of the vaccine.

Some 60-70 school staff had been vaccinated as of last week, Superintendent Pat Devine reported, with more vaccines on the way. About 25 percent of staff could be vaccinated by the end of this week.

With fluctuations in learning models and ongoing parent questions and concerns, the board asked school administrators to develop and communicate a set of metrics used in evaluations and decision-making.

Devine explained that during distance learning, educators will continue to find ways to bring students with support needs onto campus, also that learning model decisions can be adjusted based on the latest information and conditions.

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