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School district finances better than predicted

This year's financial audit brought remarkably good news to the Cloquet School District.

After predicting a budget shortfall for fiscal year 2017 of $636,294, the actual budget deficit for the district's unassigned general fund balance was only $20,661, a difference of more than $615,000 to the good.

District Finance Director Candace Nelis explained there were several reasons for the better-than-expected finances. The district received additional aid from the state because the student numbers were higher than projected. It also received an Early Education Learning Center Grant to help offset the costs of the new ECFE wing that wasn't included in the original budget because officials were not sure when they were going to finish the project. The district also spent less at each of the school sites on maintenance and equipment/supplies.

Of course, the fact that the district didn't have to move more than $500,000 out of its reserves to cover expenses is also good news for the current year, Nelis added.

Cloquet School District received an "unmodified opinion" on its basic financial statements, according to WIPFLi Senior Manager Jennifer Smith, who presented the audit results to Cloquet School Board members during Monday's meeting.

"That means 'good' in accountant-speak," Smith said, adding that there were no material weaknesses or significant deficiencies over compliance or internal controls over financial reporting or federal awards.

Student enrollment remains steady, with 2,704 for 2017, versus 2,694 for 2016. The 2017 numbers include 70 students in pre-kindergarten, 196 students in kindergarten, 1,252 students in grades 1-6, 411 in grades 7-8 and 775 in grades 9-12. According to the audit results, the average cost per pupil unit was $11,321 for fiscal year 2017. While that is an increase of more than $1,000 per student, it is still below the state average, Smith said.

The majority of district expenditures are on salaries, which are approaching $18 million. The next highest spending is for purchased services, at just under $6 million, and benefits, which came in only a little lower than purchased services for 2017.

The district's general fund balance is now at $8.48 million, or about three months' worth of expenditures.

The board unanimously approved the audit.

In other business Monday:

• Superintendent Ken Scarbrough reported that the sale of the old middle school building was moving forward quickly as the buyer, Roers Investments, is hoping to get the sale done before any tax reforms are implemented and proceed with renovating the buildings as apartments. District staff are going through the buildings and taking any equipment they need before an auction is held.

Scarbrough also said they may move some or all of the school district offices currently housed at Garfield School into leased space at the former middle school, to free up space at Garfield for either the Cloquet Area Alternative Education Program, or the new Northern Lights Special Education Cooperative, which are growing programs already housed at Garfield.

• Cloquet Board members, Scarbrough, Cloquet High School Principal Warren Peterson and several other staff members expressed congratulations to the high school football team for its second-place finish at state.

"Supervising a busload of middle school kids on the way to a championship game is quite an experience," Cloquet Middle School Principal Tom Brenner said.

• The board also recognized its two new student representatives: seniors Franny Slater and Christian Loeb.