The proposed 2007-08 budget for the Kyrene School District is being mapped out, and the district will largely avoid the funding shortfalls that have plagued other local districts. While nearby Tempe Union High School District struggles to cope with an estimated $1.1 million budget shortfall, Kyrene is foreseeing a $2.3 million increase. Also, whereas Tempe Union will cut some district office positions and considered cutting school librarians and English assistants before a backlash prompted a change of heart, Kyrene will not be laying off a single employee. Although all districts in the area are facing the same challenges - declining enrollment, paltry state funding and rising costs - Kyrene officials said the district has managed to weather the storm by dipping into reserve funds. "Part of it is that we've had our reserves in place," said Karin Smith, Kyrene's director of business services. "We've been prepared for our gradual decline in enrollment." Not that it's all good news. The reserve that will keep the district in the black without necessitating staff or program cuts will likely be depleted this year. While Kyrene's goal is to replenish the funds before next year, there's no guarantee that will happen. "We have about $1 million budget in reserve," Smith said. "Right now we're looking at liquidating the majority of it, if not all of it." But the Kyrene Governing Board, board vice president Rae Waters said, will keep doing what's necessary to avoid budget crises. Waters is the only member of the Kyrene board from Ahwatukee Foothills. "We've known this was coming; we've planned for it," she said. "We've been very specific and focused on avoiding these kinds of shortfalls." Tempe Union's shortfall, said spokeswoman Linda Littell, was largely the result of the board not eliminating the district's generous - and unique to the area - retirement benefits package for employees. "In order to pay for retirement benefits they (the school board) had to make cuts," Littell said. "It was a board decision; they had a district committee, the committee made a recommendation and the board went by the committee recommendation. That created a hole." Tempe Union's retiree benefit program paid 100 percent of retired employees' medical benefits if that employee had worked for Tempe Union more than 10 years. The benefit was suggested for elimination by then-Superintendent Shirley Miles, but was instead modified to kick in after 20 years of employment. In Kyrene, continuing along are the district's numerous voter-approved overrides. The Kyrene Teaches With Technology Project, which is funded by a November 2005-approved $49 million override and puts laptop computers and high-tech projection equipment in classrooms, will add the technology to 150 elementary classrooms and 80 middle school classrooms. "The overrides are a big thing," Smith said. "If we didn't have them we'd be in a world of hurt." Waters also said numerous small changes made in the last few years, including contracting out food services, aggressively seeking out grants and making cuts when necessary. "In the grand scheme of things they're just small things - $100,000 here, $100,000 there; small compared to a multimillion dollar budget," Waters said. "Remember some of the middle school changes a few years ago? That helped us plan to sustain what we had in middle school without having to make cuts." The middle school changes to which Waters referred were put into effect in March 2005. The schedule changed the overall time students spend in core classes and decreased the overall time students spend in elective or exploratory classes. The move so enraged some parents that a recall movement - which ultimately failed - was launched to recall board members like Waters who voted for the change. "It's not easy to make those decisions, the decisions you have to make to balance a budget," Waters added. Jason Ludwig can be reached at (480) 898-7916 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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