As they prepare to head into a new school year, officials of the Webster Groves School District have the fiscal wind in their sails thanks to a set of subtle, strategic changes.
The impending departure of District Chief Finance Officer Bruce Ellerman, who played a key role in the district’s turnaround, provides context.
“In 2015, as a district we had to go to the voters for a levy increase, and we were rejected,” said Ellerman. “We had to cut $1.5 million from programs and salaries. Our debt service was in a tough position. We needed to do some things differently going forward.”
One of the first steps toward solidifying the district’s standing was to institute full-day kindergarten in 2016.
“That allowed us to capture a whole bunch of state money and at the same time, eliminate tuition-based kindergarten,” Ellerman explained.
The move added about $1.1 million in state aid to the district’s coffers and saved families about $2,000 per child.
Next, the district recalculated how it had been reporting attendance.
“We found we had about 300 more students attending than we thought, which translated to about $300,000 more in state aid,” Ellerman said. “That was a one-time expense that allowed us to apply extra funds to debt service.”
Next, district leaders examined the teacher salary structure. The review discovered an odd curve in which some teachers were being paid above the local market standard while others were being paid less than in comparable districts. Webster Groves District teachers do not have a collective-bargaining unit.
“Based on current market demands, we were able to put in place a more realistic salary structure that ensures our teachers are compensated fairly, and that we can employ the best and the brightest,” Webster Groves School District Superintendent John Simpson said.
Retirements of long-time teachers also helped the district remold the salary structure.
Light bulbs, or the replacement of them, was yet another area where the district could improve its fiscal position.
“As we were looking at operational efficiencies, we looked at everything,” Ellerman said. “While it may sound like a simple thing, we discovered that to replace every light bulb in the district would cost more than $100,000. Working with Ameren, which offered a program where they paid 75% of the cost, we went from 30-watt bulbs to 13-watt LED lighting, using a third of the electricity. The energy we recouped paid off in four to five months.”
In the overall analysis, the Webster Groves School District has been transformed from the third-highest property tax rate in the state to the 10th while improving its fund balances by 50 percent, Ellerman said.
“The local economy and higher assessments have helped as well,” said Ellerman, who will “semi-retire” to a two-day per week status. He has been replaced by Pam Frazier, who held a similar position with the Wentzville School District.
Simpson is pleased with the district’s financial progress.
“We recently were discussing the position we are in now compared to when we started as a newer district leadership team three years ago,” he said. “We’re fairly proud of what’s gone on.”