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4:58 AM Fri, Nov. 16th

After 'perfect storm,' HUSD board approves new budget

PRESCOTT VALLEY – The Humboldt Unified School District Governing Board approved a proposed 2003-04 maintenance and operations budget of $20.3 million Tuesday night after Director of Finance Kirk Waddle said the district has emerged from the financial "perfect storm" that battered it a year ago.

Borrowing the storm scenario from outgoing superintendent Roger L. Short, Waddle said it comprised the state budget crisis, 2001-02 district budget deficit and a student enrollment decline of 380 children occurring simultaneously.

All that added up to a $2 million deficit, but the board adopted aggressive cost-cutting methods, including saving $1 million by laying off newer employees, and sold excess property and water rights. Also, the Legislature enacted a bill that will let the district repay $659,000 it overspent this past year in five payments instead of two.

Acting Board President Victoria Bentz praised Waddle for his handling of the situation.

"I think we found a perfect navigator for the perfect storm," said Bentz, who filled in for Boyce Macdonald. (Macdonald, board president, left about halfway through the meeting to take care of his home, which the out-of-control prescribed forest burn in Cherry was threatening.)

"It was pretty scary at the beginning of the year, but the principals and the rest of the staff got involved," said Waddle. "There was a total commitment (to saving money)."

The board and Waddle also credited Short, interim superintendent, for leading the district out of its financial morass.

The $20.3 million budget is an increase of 1 percent from 2002-03. However, Waddle maintained that the combined tax rate to support it won't go up.

"As you can see, we're in good shape on the budget, and there won't be a (tax) increase because we're in a better position on our cash balances," Waddle said. "Also, the assessed value of property increased."

HUSD's 2003-04 budget includes 50 percent of the state's rapid decline formula, which helps school districts weather sudden drops in student enrollment. That amounts to $158,615 for HUSD.

"We got some late word from an Arizona School Boards Association lobbyist that the governor was going to line item veto the 50 percent reduction, meaning she wants the full funding of it," Waddle said. The district can adapt the proposed budget if that happens, he added.

The district's improving finances are letting it re-hire teachers and other certified employees who were part of a reductio in force (RIF) during the past two years. According to Short, it has hired back 12 full-time certified employees of the 35 it had on its RIF list in March. They include four elementary teachers, an elementary music teacher, a librarian, an elementary physical education teacher, a speech pathologist, a psychologist, sixth-grade teacher and special education teacher.

The district's new superintendent, Henry Schmitt, Ph.D., participated in Tuesday's meeting, which was Short's last at HUSD. Board members gave Short an engraved, crystal-mounted desk clock to express their appreciation for his outstanding service.

Contact the reporter at lkoniarski@prescottaz.com