The Cherokee School Board and school administrators are taking a hands-on approach as the District continues to monitor ever so closely the cold, hard facts of declining revenues and enrollment, and on-going concerns in the hot lunch program.
At their Nov. 17th meeting, Superintendent Dr. John Chalstrom cautioned the Board that in the future, revenues will decline at the state level, and that Iowa Governor Chet Culver has not yet ruled out mid-year state aid reductions.
"It's been done in the past and if it's not this year, it will be next year," said Chalstrom, citing shrinking sales tax and state income tax revenues due to the current national economic crisis.
Using information gleaned from a recent Area Education Association (AEA) Meeting, Chalstrom said the combination of reduced state aid, a decline in allowable growth revenues, and declining enrollment have been termed "the perfect storm" by an AEA lobbyist.
Chalstrom said 80 percent of Iowa schools now face declining enrollment. He also added that the Cherokee District has a solid history of staying ahead of the curve when it comes to managing its finances and seeing into the future to be well prepared for what might befall them regarding revenues and expenditures.
"I'm pleased to report that the Cherokee District is doing very, very well," emphasized Chalstrom. "We have preserved a healthy unspent balance of $1.5 million. However, we must keep our eyes on cash reserves to weather any reductions and stay prudent in preserving our unspent balance."
Basing his figures on graduating seniors versus incoming kindergartners, Chalstrom said the District faces potential enrollment declines of 30-40 students each year for the next two years before more balance returns.
"Big challenges face us as budget guarantees dwindle," warned Chalstrom. "We have a lot of issues and need to keep our ears to the ground."
The Board also discussed at length lingering problems in the school's hot lunch program concerning students disregarding the regular-fare hot lunch meals and choosing instead from the pricier ala carte menu.
The conundrum is the increased income from the ala carte sales buttresses the Food Service budget, but causes problems between students and parents as some students spend as much as $6 per day eating ala carte. The well-balanced regular hot lunch meal, based on State guidelines for optimal nutritional values, costs $1.75 per day.
Board members Terri Weaver and Jack Creel, and Chalstrom, recently monitored the lunch period and Weaver filed a verbal report Monday night, saying that approximately half the students go directly to the ala carte line, totally disregarding the regular hot lunch lines.
This year the Board approved increasing the ala carte items by 30 percent, thinking that might stem the flow and cause more students to eat regular fare hot lunch, for which the District gets partially reimbursed by the Federal Government. There is no reimbursement for ala carte items.
In explaining the phenomenon, Weaver said, "It's not their (students) money. It's their parents.'"
Weaver also said that at first, she was all for eliminating the ala carte menu, but has re-thought that since learning how much ala carte contributes to the program's budget. "If we need to transfer funds to compensate for revenue shortage in the Food Service, then that is impacting instruction and we can't let that happen," explained Weaver, who said she asked one student why she chose ala carte pizza at $2.25 per slice on the same day the hot lunch meal was a complete pizza meal, and the girl said the brand name ala carte pizza "tasted better."
Chalstrom said the District has concerns and continues to monitor the choices students make. There has been a slight decrease in ala carte this year, noted Chalstrom, who theorized that the 30-percent price hike probably caused that.
Chalstrom also said the cook staff continually tries to be more creative to turn students on to eating more regular fare hot lunches. "Our cooking staff does a wonderful job and works great together," said Chalstrom. "We're all working hard to keep the Food Service budget self-sufficient.
Chalstrom said the school also needs to assist parents in getting all the information possible on the choices their kids are making at hot lunch and work together to reach a happy medium.
The Superintendent also presented figures and charts comparing the 2007 and 2008 years for the October hot lunch program revenues and expenditures.
The issue of student payment deficits on hot lunch accounts also was raised by Chalstrom. The District sends out a form letter notifying parents if their child's account is overdue. Considerations also are made for parents facing financial hardship, with free or reduced lunch fares available as the school works with the parents. Chalstrom also emphasized that no high school student is ever denied any lunch, as a peanut butter sandwich and milk is available until the student's lunch account in arrears has been paid.
According to a pie chart presented by Chalstrom, student meals account for 32 percent of the annual revenue sources for the 2008 Food Service budget, 24 percent comes from ala carte, 25 percent from Federal funds, nine percent from the summer food program, three percent from Institutional income, two percent from breakfast, two percent from extra milk sales, two percent from adult meals served, and one percent from State funds.
"Our responsibility is to ensure sound accounting practices in our lunch program," concluded Chalstrom.
In other business, the Board approved a contract for Ami Burch as a special education associate at the Cherokee Middle School, and after no motion, no action, and no discussion, denied a written request of an employee to waive the 15-year requirement for early retirement as outlined in Board Policy 407.6.
The Board also heard during the Principals' reports of the outstanding, high-percentage of parental participation in the recent Parent/Teachers Conferences. All agreed this is a very positive achievement for the District.