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Finance officer defends school district's budget
By CHRIS COLLINS
Doug Dalton believes the Baker School District is on the right track with its five-year planning strategy.
And, he says, the data back him up.
That’s why he, as the district’s chief financial officer, was particularly concerned when school board member Kyle Knight wrote letters to the editors of Baker City’s two newspapers criticizing the district’s 2011-12 budget plan as “irresponsible.”
In an attempt to “set the record straight on the data,” Dalton made a PowerPoint presentation to the board at its February meeting.
He also met with media representatives to provide his explanation of the budget and other district data.
He’s particularly concerned about Knight’s reference to the district’s $1-million-plus contingency fund and his comparison of that amount to the La Grande School District’s contingency fund of $366,000.
Dalton says the Baker District’s actual contingency fund, which is used to pay for emergencies such as the failure of a school’s heating system, for example, totals $400,000. That amount is an appropriated expense in the district’s general fund budget and requires board approval to spend.
An additional $188,000 is included in the general fund budget as an “unassigned ending fund balance.”
Dalton described the ending fund balance as “a tool to limit current and future risks.” That includes state revenue shortfalls and fluctuations, and unexpected expenses.
It’s a savings account, basically.
“If you spend it, it’s gone,” Dalton said, which is why the district would be ill-advised to spend money in the fund to hire an additional teacher.
Dalton said the district is working to expand the ending fund balance with the goal of reaching $1.2 million as part of its five-year strategic plan to level out programs.
The Oregon School Boards Association recommends that the ending fund balance total 5 percent to 8 percent of general fund revenue, Dalton said. The Baker District’s current figure is 1.2 percent, he said.
Guidelines established by the Government Finance Officers Association call for a range of 5 percent to 15 percent of the general fund to be set as the goal for the ending fund balance, Dalton said.
“We’re appropriately growing our ending fund balance with a strategic focus toward our targeted goal,” Dalton said.
How much each district budgets for contingency and an ending fund balance is geared to its spending philosophy specific needs, he said.
Dalton took offense to Knight’s comments in letters to the editor in which he stated “it is clear to me that the district is not the best steward of the taxpayers’ money.”
Dalton, who came to the school district from the private sector in the fall of 2009, pointed to the many rules, regulations and audits the school district is governed.
“The business of running a school district is probably more regulated, with more oversight, than most,” he said.
The district has its own internal controls on spending, and an annual independent audit ensures that all accounting practices meet state and federal standards.
Federal audits are conducted regularly, and the Oregon Department of Education provides oversight and requires regular data reporting.
“You name it and the ODE collects it and they slice it and dice it a million different ways,” Dalton said.
The district’s budget committee, which includes five community volunteers and the five board members, also provides guidance during the annual budget planning sessions, Dalton said.
“Across the board we’ve had stellar findings,” he said. “The audit was as clean as you’ll find it. We’re in good compliance and there are lots of people to ensure it.”
Dalton said every dollar spent by the district crosses his desk.
“If I feel like a dollar is spent incorrectly, we fix it,” he said. “For every dollar they want me to spend, I have to understand how that impacts students.”
The district’s policies and procedures have received statewide recognition as responsible, innovative and representing sound business practices, Dalton said.
Investments include spending on curriculum improvements, staff training, technology, food services, transportation, supplies, salaries, building improvements and management costs.
And student performance is higher than it’s ever been, he says, citing the “outstanding” ratings on the 2011 school report cards issued by the ODE. All schools in the district, except South Baker, received the state’s highest designation and South Baker missed the mark by just 1.7 percentage points, Dalton noted.
“The state test scores were the highest in history and students are offered more diverse opportunities than ever for leadership and community partnerships,” he said. “We need to celebrate our success, market our success and be proud of it.”