On Sept. 14 the Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 school board voted 4 to 3 approve a budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year, forecasting an operating deficit of just over $2.2 million. This will be the third time in the past four years RB has run an operating deficit.

The operating deficit is projected to be $2,226,756, while the deficit across all funds is projected to be $2,644,745.

Reserves that were bolstered by issuing nearly $5 million of working cash bonds in 2008 will cover the deficit this year, but those reserves are projected to be exhausted by 2013.

Last year’s budget ended up with a surplus of $550,546 according to unaudited figures, but that’s only because the property tax collection ratios were changed by the county so that 55 percent of the property taxes were collected in the spring rather than 50 percent as was done in the past.

This year’s large operating deficit is partially a result of a conscious decision by the majority of the school board not to make deep cuts before a referendum seeking to raise taxes for RB is held this spring.

“We are going to put on a high quality educational program for as long as we are able to do so,” said District 208 school board president James Marciniak.

Also on Sept. 14, the school board unanimously approved a resolution stating its intention to go to voters next spring with a referendum asking for more money to run RB.

“This is a clear statement of our intent to seek a referendum at the April 5, 2011 election,” said Interim Superintendent David Bonnette.

The amount of money that the district will ask for will not be determined until later this year when the equalized assessed valuation of all property in the district is known.

“We need that figure to calculate what the income from the referendum would be,” Bonnette said.

District 208 has not sought an increase in its education fund tax rate since 2000.

“In the year 2000 the voters in this district approved a 38 cent increase,” Bonnette said. “We’ve gotten 11 years out of that 38 cents. That is unbelievable to get 11 years of high-quality education with an enrollment that’s up 50 percent.”

Bonnette had advocated not making drastic cuts until the community has a chance to decide what kind of high school they were willing to pay for by voting in a referendum.

“Ultimately it’s a community decision,” Bonnette has said many times.

Earlier in the year Bonnette had said that to balance this year’s budget would have required laying off 19 to 20 teachers. Teacher layoffs must be done by seniority with the least experienced teachers laid off first.

Voting for the budget was Marciniak, board vice president Sue Kleinmeyer, and board members Larry Herbst and MariAnn Liebrandt. Voting against the budget were the three board members elected in 2009, Dan Moon, Matt Sinde, and Mike Welch.

Some cuts were made this year as a number of retired teachers who worked part time at RB were not rehired.

RB’s head count has been gradually declining in recent years. In the last three years teaching staff has declined by 5.7 positions and total staff has been reduced by 10 positions while enrollment has stayed steady.

Bonnette said that RB’s capital expenses, now that the renovation and addition project has been essentially completed, are being kept down.

“We have a very low capital budget,” Bonnette said. “We have a very low budget for textbooks.”

However at RB, like all school districts, personnel make up the bulk of expenses. Salaries and benefits account for 76.82 percent of the budget, according to Business Manager Chris Whelton.

Those voting against the budget wanted deeper cuts.

“I think we need to be more fiscally responsible,” said Welch, noting that RB has run up $6.6 million in deficits in recent years. “I know that costs are going up, and we don’t have a history of cutting anything out.”

Sinde also was vocal in his opposition to such a large deficit, saying that a tax hike referendum would have a much better chance for success if the board had made larger cuts this year.

The normally unflappable Bonnette seemed a bit perturbed at Sinde’s comments.

“I’m going to disagree with you directly, and we have gone through this conversation for probably about six months at this point,” Bonnette said. “The board now may not have been unanimous, but the board did decide that we were going to operate a program for this coming year, and actually if you had adopted a budget that would have been balanced, you would have cut $2.3 million without giving the public an opportunity to directly influence that decision. … I think we took the right route.”

Bonnette said the referendum is the opportunity for the community to make a choice about what kind of opportunities to offer its children.

On Monday Sinde said that he and Welch had offered a proposal in March for major budget cuts.

“Mike Welch and me proposed making some cuts in the $2 million dollar range,” Sinde said. “We were voted down. We made some cuts, but the cuts we made didn’t do a dent to the deficit.”