Keller school board members are optimistic about the district’s finances, despite approving a budget with an $11.28 million deficit.At a special meeting Thursday night, trustees unanimously approved a $229.8 million budget for 2013-14 that includes a sizable increase in spending on instruction.“We’re putting money back in the classroom,” said Board President Jim Stitt.Spending on instruction was about $124.3 million in 2011-12, $134.4 million this last year and increased to $143 million for the next year. Over the same time period, the total budget for daily operations grew by $31 million. Officials estimate that total revenue will rebound to about the same level as two years ago, or $217 million, after dropping by about $15 million last year.Superintendent Randy Reid said that one area officials are putting those extra dollars is in bringing class sizes down. Last year, the district applied for 42 class size waivers to allow second, third and fourth grade classes to exceed the 22-to-1 student-teacher ratio mandated by the state.Just before the start of this school year, KISD administrators hired several additional elementary teachers to ensure that no elementary classroom would have more than 22 students.Reid said that an extra teacher can make a big difference on a campus. For instance a grade level with 23 students in each of five sections can drop to 19 or 20 with six sections.In addition to the extra teachers, the budget includes 3 percent raises for all employees and $1.4 million to defray an increase in healthcare costs.Trustees are willing to have a deficit budget because of a sizable district fund balance, or savings account, and because of a pending lawsuit districts filed against the state’s education funding formula. Earlier this year, a judge agreed with districts that the funding is inadequate and inequitable; state officials have appealed. Meanwhile, the Texas Legislature put money back into public education after slashing revenue two years ago and gave a bit more to districts like Keller with lower per-student revenues.Stitt said the district’s healthy fund balance made the deficit budget easier to swallow and is hopeful that the lawsuit will be successful and legislators will revise the funding formula in Keller’s favor.A little more than two years ago, the picture was much more bleak. In the spring of 2011, Keller district officials declared a state of financial exigency, or emergency, and—a few months later—held an unsuccessful election to raise the tax rate.At the Aug. 29 meeting, Chief Financial Officer Mark Youngs said the district no longer needed the state of financial emergency.“We’re no longer financially exigent because that condition has passed,” Youngs said.Trustee Cindy Lotton said that this year’s budget season was much more calm because it didn’t include the gut-wrenching cuts of the past.
Sandra Engelland, 817-431-2231 Twitter: @SandraEngelland