Whitehall News

'Still bleeding ... but not as fast'

Financial outlook looking better for school district


Whitehall Board of Education members welcomed some good news last week as district treasurer Steve McAfee announced that the latest financial picture is looking better -- not good, but better.

"We're still bleeding," McAfee said, "but not as fast."

McAfee presented his most up-to-date five-year forecast to school board members May 9 during the board's regular monthly meeting. His predictions put the district in a bit more favorable light than his previous outlook in October.

School districts are required by the state to submit a five-year forecast twice a year: once in May and again in October. The document looks at a district's finances in detail over a five-year period.

"The bottom line is that the forecast has improved since last October," McAfee told board members. "And that's a good thing."

McAfee cited several reasons for the boost in district coffers. Increased enrollment this year has equated to additional state funding, he said. He also has a better picture of "where the state legislature is heading with funding for the next couple of years," he said. Proposals now, he said, appear to be favorable for Whitehall, but he cautioned that nothing has been passed yet.

McAfee also said last year was a good claims year and that the district would not have to increase health insurance rates as a result.

"So far, things are looking better than we (previously) thought," he said.

McAfee had predicted correctly in October that the district would fall into deficit spending in 2012, but now he believes the district should not have to dig as deep each year to fund total expenditures.

In fact, McAfee had predicted that the district would fall into a negative balance by fiscal year 2017. But now, he expects to have nearly a $5 million fund balance instead. The district will continue to dip into its savings, or fund balance, to carry out operations until that fund balance is depleted, he said.

"A future operating levy still appears necessary," he said, "but not as soon as previously anticipated (in spring 2014)."

Being able to delay a levy is good news for voters, he said, and good news for the district. It will allow Whitehall to finish its construction project before having to go back to the voters for additional funding and will allow for a smoother transition for incoming Superintendent Brian Hamler, who begins in July.

McAfee cautioned that other factors still loom, including a possible additional enrollment jump, unforeseen construction expenditures and additional costs due to salary negotiations, which begin again with teachers and staff next spring.

The last time the district went to voters with an operating levy was 1995, with a 13-mil request on the ballot. District leaders promised then that they would not return for another levy increase for at least 10 years.

In November 2008, voters overwhelmingly approved a 6.87-mill bond issue to launch the $78 million construction project. Whitehall taxpayers are paying for 39 percent of the project to rebuild all five schools, with taxpayers throughout the state funding 61 percent.