Budgets were on St. Maries school trustees’ minds during their Jan. 14 meeting.

The school district’s final budget for the year is due in February or March, and trustees used their January meeting to start looking at facts surrounding the issue. Discussions included both unexpected good news for maintenance projects in the district, as well as a look at the cost of schools that could have implications for where children attend school in coming years.

Discussions began with a look at enrollment in district schools over the last ten years. Yearly figures showed that the district has seen a gradual decrease in enrollment over the decade, from 1,053 in 2010 to 973 in 2020. Enrollment plays a key role in determining state funding for the district each year.

UpRiver Elementary showed a drop across all grades, from 92 students in 2010 to 63 students in 2020. St. Maries High School also showed a drop in enrollment, from 369 in 2010 to 309 in 2020. Heyburn Elementary, during the same period, raised their enrollment slightly from 368 to 371 students, and St. Maries Middle School grew slightly from 224 to 230 students.

Discussions also turned to the cost of education at each of the schools. Financial Officer Danette Cordell presented figures on what the district pays per student, coupled with revenues received from the state to pay for their education. The figure did not include federal funding.

Mrs. Cordell’s findings showed that state funding did not cover the cost at any area schools. Funding fell short of costs by several thousand dollars per student. UpRiver Elementary, for example, has the highest cost for student education among local schools at $11,052.62; however, it only receives $6,469.29 from state funds. The difference is made up primarily through local supplemental levies.

“It doesn’t really come close in any building,” Mrs. Cordell said.

The discussion led into contemplation on the fate of UpRiver Elementary’s sixth-grade students. Over several months, trustees have considered whether to move the school’s small sixth-grade class – of seven students as of the report – to St. Maries Middle School, along with their full-time teacher. The move would allow St. Maries teachers, regularly teaching more than 30 students, to divide their students across more teachers and reduce class sizes.

Trustees also acknowledged that such a move could inconvenience local families, who would have to bus or otherwise transport students to St. Maries from Fernwood.

“What is the best use of our resources?” Superintendent Alica Holthaus asked. “To have a teacher with very few students, or to move them to the middle school to help alleviate that load? That conversation will come up when we build our school budget this spring, and this is something we have to consider.”

No action was taken on the issue.

In positive news, a revised list of maintenance projects in the school district showed overall improvements in the state of facilities. Due to ongoing projects from the district’s maintenance department, several items were replaced or refurbished to the point that they were removed from the list entirely.

“I’m kind of excited that we have some more greens and blues on this list,” Ms. Holthaus said.

“Greens and blues” refers to a color-coding system in which greens and blues represent good or like-new aspects of the buildings. The changes occurred due to improvements to several systems in the school district, including the Heyburn Elementary kitchen, new security doors throughout the district and modern water fountains at several schools.

In addition, Ms. Holthaus said that the school may have enough money to do some unexpected maintenance in the upcoming year, possibly removing more elements from that list.

“We tried to live as frugally as possible, and we set aside some extra money,” she said. “Joe Gilmore does think that he can get a roof or maybe two done with his current budget.”

She said that she and Mr. Gilmore will meet in the near future to determine the possible cost of such repairs, in order to determine how much work can be done with the existing funding.

Despite these advances, many more projects remain that are considered in poor or critical condition. Among these are siding at various schools, plumbing and electrical at the district’s oldest buildings and bleachers at Heyburn Elementary and the high school. These items will likely be included on a future plant facilities levy.

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