Although it's disappointing the Rapid City Area School District is ducking the pain of inevitable budget cuts by dipping into reserves and enacting a spending and hiring freeze, it does have an ace up its sleeve.
That ace is likely to rile teachers while drawing cheers from the taxpayers.
Like most public schools throughout the nation, Rapid City pays 100 percent of its employees' health insurance premiums, and 75 percent for family members.
That full-coverage practice, which is rare in the world of private business, is a luxury the school district no longer can afford without seriously affecting the quality of education for its students.
In the next school year, the district is facing a $5 million cut from the state. Congress is considering a budget that would cut an additional $1.2 million. And federal stimulus funds, doled out to help public schools and government agencies cope with the bad economy, also will dry up, resulting in another loss of $1.8 million.
The district has to cough up an additional $1.7 million to cover the rising cost of health insurance premiums for employees.
It all adds up to a $9.7 million hit.
The health insurance obligation is locked into this year's employee contracts, something that school budget director Dave Janak would like to see renegotiated next year.
''It should be on the table,'' Janak said. ''Compensation and benefits make up 85 percent of the budget.''
The district expects to get about $75 million in revenue in the 2011-2012 school year, and spend about $79 million.
With only 15 percent of the budget devoted to other school operating costs, there's simply no way to the balance the district's future budgets without impacting the staff - unless the economy unexpectedly recovers in sudden leaps and bounds.
Even if the district were to wipe out the entire 15 percent of the budget that remains after employees are paid - making it impossible to run the schools - it would barely cover all of the cuts headed its way.
Rapid City school superintendent Tim Mitchell was planning to release a detailed list of proposed budget cuts.
Instead, he found a way to delay that painful process for a year by tapping $3 million to $5 million from the district's reserves and spending the last of its $1.8 million in stimulus funds.
The spending freeze will save another $1.5 million. And the district plans to transfer $3 million to $3.5 million in capital outlay funds into the general fund.
In layman's speak, that means money set aside for equipment purchases and building improvements instead will be spent to run the schools and pay employees. Although it makes sense to postpone building projects to meet the needs of existing schools, that can't go on indefinitely in a growing city.
The district thus far has avoided reducing employee benefits because teachers and other school employees already have gone several years without a raise ...
No one wants to see teachers take a hit when the work they do is so valuable.
No one wants to see taxpayers taxed even further when they're already dealing with their own economic struggles.
It's encouraging that Rapid City Education Association president Sue Podoll wants to see cuts made far from students.
It won't be easy to deliver that, but students' needs should be the No. 1 priority. And the best way to protect that would be to cut lavish employee benefits.
Teachers are sure to balk. And just because Janak likes the idea doesn't mean the school board will buy it. But we urge the board to do just that.
They work for the taxpayers who elect them, and that is where their first allegiance should be, not to employees who will fight to protect their own interests.
- Rapid City Journal