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CLOQUET SCHOOL BOARD: Revised budget brings mixed news

While results of a new budget report were mostly positive, the Cloquet School District is still looking at a budget deficit for 2017-18.

The Cloquet School Board approved a revised 2017-18 budget Monday, Feb. 26, showing a $737,909 deficit for the year. On a positive note, that number was much lower than the $1.6 million shortfall predicted in June.

However, it's a moving target.

District Finance Director Candace Nelis said the school district projects expenditures to be higher, so it ends up spending less.

"So, this is a worst-case scenario, then?" Board Chairman Ted Lammi asked.

"I hope by the end of the year, that deficit figure will be even lower," Nelis said. "But the question is, how much?"

A predicted $500,000 for the 2016-17 school year, for example, ended up at $20,661 for the unassigned general fund balance, a number confirmed by last year's audit.

Nelis said any final deficit would be covered by the district's general fund balance, which is predicted to reach nearly $8 million by June 30. The finance director said the district's fund balance is close to 28 percent of annual expenditures, which is within the range recommended by the state.

In addition, the revised budget also included a predicted fund balance of $3.7 million in the construction fund — created for the new middle school and remodeling security and learning areas at the district's other buildings, along with ongoing maintenance issues — by June 30.

Nelis also predicts the construction fund balance will be less than predicted by June, noting that once all the building projects are completely wrapped up physically as well as financially, she expects the district will have between $2 million and $3 million to spend on other building projects.

Superintendent Ken Scarbrough explained that the district and board were "rather conservative" with the maintenance issues as the middle school project was ongoing because they wanted to make sure they had the budget to complete the major parts of this project.

"As we are completing our project and have sold the middle school, we are getting an idea of how much money we have left in contingency by not having to spend over a million dollars to demo the old middle school," he said, noting that the additional funds also include interest collected on bonding money invested while the projects were underway.

The board has discussed a number of potential projects that could be paid for with the additional funds during the past two school board meetings. Several of the larger potential projects and rough costs follow, as estimated by construction management firm Kraus Anderson:

• High school science room: A science room remodel (2,000 square feet) could cost as much as $200,000. Scarbrough explained that the science room plumbing isn't working, and a remodel would include redoing the gas and water plumbing for each lab station, which would require demolition of the floor. Lab stations would be moved and replaces and a large closet area opened up to create more space for the classroom. New cabinets would need to be installed to more effectively store lab equipment and classroom supplies with the removal of the closet.

• Auditorium work: CHS Vice Principal Steve Battaglia is forming a committee to look at needs and wants for the high school auditorium, the district's only auditorium since the middle school was built without one after voters didn't approve it. Examples of needs may include seating, lighting, sound, old rigging and assurance of disabled access. A similar project in a different school district cost about $800,000, but the committee and staff would need to set priorities and budget before finalizing a recommendation to the school board.

• Waterproofing: Waterproofing the two long walls on the north side of the high school is on the wish list. While doing the middle school project, Scarbrough explained that construction workers found out why the waterproofing was failing on the south side of the CHS building. That waterproofing issue was fixed with a change order, and the water problem on that side of the school has been addressed.

"The water issue in other parts of the high school is not new and is a seasonal issue," Scarbrough said. "We will do more analysis of the issue to determine the best fix, timeline for that fix, and what funds will be designated to do that job."

• A district storage building came in at an estimated cost of $250,000 to $400,000. Board member Jim Crowley advocated against a "Cadillac" building for storage. After discussion, Lammi asked Kraus Anderson construction manager Greg Schendel to come back with a proposal closer to $250,000 for a wood-frame storage building on a floating slab.

The excess construction money doesn't include the maximum $5 million for roof replacement at the two elementary schools approved by the school board at its Feb. 12 meeting, bond debt that would be paid out of the school district's long-term facilities maintenance fund.

In other matters Monday, the board approved adding a half-time Indian Ed teacher to provide additional academic support for all students. The position will be re-evaluated for the next school year.

They also heard a report from Jessica Gagne, who has served as the technology integrationist for the elementary school teachers and the new iPads. Gagne works one-on-one with teachers learning to use new tools such as virtual field trips on Google Expedition, making iMovies, book creator and more.

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