With news last week that Riverside-Brookfield High School would be receiving a big, fat check for almost $9 million from the state, the obvious first question on everyone’s minds was — OK, what gets funded with this windfall?
There are plenty of options. The school district can use it to pay down debt it owes on bonds it sold to fund the renovation and expansion of the high school, which was completed a few years ago. After all, the grant application was made specifically for capital improvements.
The district could also choose to use the money to fund future new capital improvements. There’s no end to the life safety and other improvements that continually need to be made on large institutional buildings. We already know several areas of the school’s roof need attention. The football stadium needs some work and the tennis courts are crumbling.
Or, the district could use the money to reinstitute programs and staff cuts made to balance the budget in recent years. Of course, the danger there is using a one-time windfall to pay for ongoing operational expenses. That’s how government agencies get into trouble in the first place.
One interesting option we’ve heard floated is that the money be kept in a fund dedicated to capital improvements. That way, there is money available for the types of projects the money was initially intended for.
By having a large reserve in that fund, the district could alter its tax levy to increase the amount of the levy that goes toward general operations. That would provide an ongoing source of funding for ongoing programs, which could be reintroduced as the money is available to support them.
Or the levy could be used to build up an operating reserve, which the district needs as an emergency fund in case tax revenues are late or there’s some sort of catastrophic event that requires a large expenditure of cash (hello, successful property tax appeals at the mall).
While this bundle of cash is great to have and provides some short-term flexibility, it hasn’t solved the long-term financial picture of the school district. Its buildings will always need attention. New teacher contracts and subsequent increases in salaries and benefits will continue to put pressure on the bottom line from an operational standpoint.
The point is, this grant isn’t a funding panacea for the school district. We expect the board, administration and staff to come at this bit of good fortune from that perspective.
We would also hope that taxpayers eye this grant as an opportunity to provide greater flexibility in funding school operations and capital expenditures, which will continue to increase if the community wants to keep services at current levels or supplement them.
This will not, we are certain, eliminate the need for the district and community members to continue discussing how the school district can sustain funding in the future, whether that’s through limiting programs or increasing funding through a referendum or a combination of the two.
This grant has bought time, not a solution.