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Yellow Springs school board eyes rising PBL costs

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The Yellow Springs School District’s budget work session last week concerned itself with the depletion of the fund that has been the primary source of funding for project-based learning (PBL) activities, and overall ways to increase revenue as the district slides to deficit spending, which is projected to begin as early as the 2016–17 school year.

“It was ultimately about looking at the financial forecast and identifying that we’ll be deficit spending soon,” Superintendent Mario Basora said in an interview Tuesday. “The session was a proactive approach to discuss this reality.”

The projected deficit spending is partially the result of increasing PBL expenses. As PBL has become an integral part of the district’s operations, the money needed to fund it has likewise increased, Basora said, and the board has to address how the district’s strategic PBL plan can be better incorporated into its budget.

The expenditures of the Yellow Springs Public School Fund (formerly YSCAPE) was the focus of the work session. YSPSF is a fund started in 2013 that has been used as the primary source for funding PBL activities, such as teacher training and classroom needs. The private fund was started with $150,000 seed money and is administered by the Yellow Springs Community Foundation with an advisory committee of school personnel.

In the course of funding PBL projects, the YSPSF fund is close to exhausted, “but this is something that had been anticipated since the fund’s inception,” Basora said.

“Anytime you do something innovative, it takes operating costs plus the cost of the program,” he said.

District treasurer Dawn Bennett noted that 2016-17 YSPSF funds will cover around $10,000 of the estimated $50,000 yearly needed to continue PBL projects on their present course. The remaining $40,000 will come from the district’s general operating budget.  Accordingly, Basora said that some the annual PBL expenses will have to be reduced or funded by different areas of the budget. The board has “separated out what PBL expenses will be reduced or eliminated, what can be covered by grants, and what will move to the general fund budget,” he said.

Board members noted, for example, that the anticipated staff trips to High Tech High in California, in which groups of teachers visit the school twice a year to see a model of PBL in action, are valuable but perhaps superfluous in times of tightening budgets. The two trips were estimated to cost around $20,000 yearly.

Basora presented a five-year budget and 10-year fundraising plan for PBL expenses. The budget outlines money expected to come from various endowments (around $440,000 by 2026), future YSPSF revenue, and the general operating fund. The fundraising plan sets goals for the district’s development office, a new position tasked exclusively with fundraising to replenish the YSPSF fund. The district recently hired development officer Dawn Boyer to lead this effort. The district hopes to raise a total of $5,577,000 by 2026, approximately $2,000,000 of which will be dedicated to “PBL and innovation.”

Boyer will start as the district’s development officer in early June, and will be tasked with fundraising and “potentially monetizing the district’s PBL momentum,” Basora said. The position has been in discussion for at least the past year, and the approximately $100,000 the position will cost the district in salary and benefits will come from the district’s general operating budget, as approved by the board. Boyer will be working with the YSPSF fund specifically.

“She is going to have to hit the ground running,” Bennett said.

Overall, though, the district has a significant cash cushion and will continue to operate on an $8 million dollar annual budget.

“We’ll still be able to run the district,” Basora said, “but we want to figure out a way to do it that continues to grow PBL.”

Fundraising possibilities

The district is five years into its current levy, Basora said, but the district’s expenses have outpaced the revenue the levy brings in.

“We have the cash reserves for this moment,” he said, “but we are going to officially start spending more than we take in.”

As such, other fundraising possibilities were discussed at the work session. The board explored smaller-scale revenue sources that would offset the extent of deficit spending and could possibly delay the need for another levy.

One suggested source is charging for visits by educators who come from a number of districts and states to observe the classrooms, speak with teachers and generally see the district’s PBL model in action.

“We are fishermen with fish jumping into our boat,” said Basora, referring to the number of people who have shown interest in visiting the school.

Additionally, the district could potentially rent the specialized “high-powered and expensive equipment” of the Maker Space to community members in the evening. The Maker Space, which is expected to be operational soon, is a facility projected to have a wood shop, recording studio and other equipment specific to a variety of creative pursuits and important to the district’s PBL curriculum.

The board also discussed the status of an alumni association committee, a body that could raise funds through the high school’s alumni network. Basora said that while there are a handful of disparate alumni groups, there is no single group that brings them together. Board members mentioned they had contact information for roughly 10 percent of the high school’s alumni, and were considering an initial round of asking for donations.

Board member Steven Conn expressed concern that there wasn’t typically a “culture of asking” alumni for donations around public school districts, but that it is nonetheless an avenue to consider.

The alumni network and its fundraising efforts would be led by alumni president Erika Grushon.

Basora said that increasing open enrollment (OE) numbers may lead to more money from the state. The district receives $6,000 for every student attending from an outside district, but an influx of open enrollment students could pose a concern depending on which grades draw students. For example, there are currently 12 open enrollment kindergartners signed up for next year, a number that the board agreed may make for slightly crowded classrooms. While high school grades have space for the OE students, other grades face a glut, and so ways to budget the buildings’ space were also discussed if more students were to attend district schools.

These are all valid avenues for raising money, Basora said. But while fundraising will offset some of the district’s costs, he said, realistically it’s not going to totally offset the need for money from the -community.

The board discussed the likelihood of villagers passing an additional $915,000 emergency levy in 2017, though this may not be necessary until 2019 or 2020.

Overall, the deficit spending and the necessity of developing a budget that accommodates PBL are the exigencies of a modern, innovative district, he said.

“I don’t think it’s right to say we made a mistake,” said Basora, “It’s just the reality of running schools.”

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