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Plenty of questions for district budget

As the Farmington School District wades into the process of setting its budget for the 2009-10 school year it finds itself with a lot of unanswered questions and a potential shortfall of more than $1 million to address.

Uncertainty is common this early in the process, when the district can only guess at the funding it will get from the state. But this year presents some additional challenges, biggest among them a $5 billion state deficit that makes state funding even less certain than usual.

"We rely so much on state aid for about 75, 80 percent of our revenue, so when we see a $5 billion deficit at the state level some of it's going to be passed our way," said Jeff Priess, the district's finance director.

There are other unanswered questions, too. The U.S. Legislature is currently discussing an economic stimulus package that, according to estimates released last week, could include nearly $1.7 million for the Farmington district over the next two years.

Governor Tim Pawlenty was scheduled to present his budget recommendations Tuesday but with the district in the middle of putting together assumptions for a budget that has to be approved by June it is necessary to make some guesses. For this year, that means planning for state education funding to stay the same as it was last year.

If that's the case, the district will have to find an additional $1.2 million in its budget. Priess said the district could do that by moving to higher-deductible insurance policies, adjusting bus routes and paying technology staff from the district's capital fund. The district also would not replace teaching and learning director Steve Dibb or buildings and grounds director Doug Bonar, both of whom resigned late last year.

The district could also free up some money with the sale of bonds to fund insurance benefits for retired employees. The school board voted in December to authorize the sale of as much as $6 million in bonds to pay for what it calls post-employment benefits. But the board won't vote until at least February on whether to actually make the sale.

Selling the bonds could free up $412,000 next year.

The economic stimulus money presents some other uncertainties. The estimates released last week by the House Committee on Education and Labor show District 192 receiving $980,900 in 2009 and $697,500 in 2010. But that money appears to come with strings attached.

Priess was still uncertain Monday morning exactly what the stimulus money would mean for the district but it appears the money will be targeted at specific areas such as construction and special education with little flexibility in how it's used.

"Typically with federal special education (funding) you can't supplant your existing programs," Priess said. "It may mean we expand the program."