The Johnson County School District No. 1 board of trustees decided at a special meeting on May 19 to allocate nearly all of the district’s roughly $1.3 million surplus funds it must spend by June 30 to employee bonuses and a special purpose fund. 

The allocation comes after months of uncertainty over potential budget reductions and an increased retirement incentive the district offered to 12 long-tenured teachers to help the district save money. 

At the sometimes contentious special meeting, trustees decided on a 5-4 vote to award a $3,000 bonus to all employees of Johnson County School District No. 1 who were employed from Aug. 17, 2020, to May 19, 2021. 

Trustees Kristen LeDoux, Randy Brown, Mike Moon, Mary McCorkle and Lynette Fox voted in favor of the $3,000 amount, while all trustees except Brown voted in favor of the employment date stipulation in a separate motion. 

The bonuses will cost the district about $812,000, including payroll taxes, for roughly 250 employees. Another $400,000 will go into a special purpose fund that will help pay for future equipment purchases when items eventually break down. 

District business manager Tom Sarvey said in an email that he had recommended to the school board that the board allocate $1.4 million to the special purpose fund to bring that fund up to $1.8 million. Instead, the additional $400,000 will bring that fund to just $800,000. 

“We should have some carryover from the FY 2021-22 school year that could transfer, but I doubt it will be a million dollars,” he said. “I feel the district will reach $1.8 million in time, so I do not see it as catastrophic if we do not reach it in the next couple of years. $800,000 will also fund any need for the special purpose (fund) we may have over the next couple of years.”

The discussion over bonuses at the special meeting started with a motion by board Chairman Dave Belus for $1,000 bonuses to all employees of the district, in part for keeping school buildings open during the 2020-21 school year and for what he described as good-looking WY-TOPP scores, though those results are not yet public. 

Trustees then shared a wide variety of opinions on the topic, including frustration over the lack of action taken on wish lists the school board had teachers and administrators put together for what they wanted done with the money. Trustee Kristen LeDoux said at the meeting that she expected those lists to include some outlandish items, but instead they included things like hot water in school bathrooms and safer front doors. 

Trustees Jodi Verplancke and Jan Johnson also expressed interest in setting money aside for sports field improvements at the middle school and high school. 

Trustee Mike Moon, however, said that in his conversation with Sarvey, he had been told that because the money needs to be spent by the end of June, the trustees were essentially out of time to spend the money other than the bonus or the special purpose fund.

“The problem is time again,” Moon said. “You know, Tom’s indication was that, that as far as this excess money we have right now is concerned, we have very few options. We can do bonus; we can put it in the depreciation fund. I asked him about the things that Kristen (LeDoux) was talking about on the wish lists, and his response was, we’re out of time. We just don’t have enough time to get this stuff in place.” 

The district surplus funds this year come from the resolution of property tax disputes in the county. The money, however, caused the district’s cash reserves to be over the amount allowed

 by state statute — 15% of the district’s total budget. If the district doesn’t spend the money in excess of the 15% allowed in cash reserves or put it into a special purpose fund, it must be returned to the state. 

The June 30 deadline requires that the district has received any purchased items by that date  to qualify to be covered by the excess funds, Cloud Peak Elementary School Principal Craig Anderson said at the special meeting. 

In October 2020, Sarvey first advised trustees that the district would likely have some excess funds to spend. At that point, he expected it to be between $600,000 and $900,000 and Superintendent Jim Wagner said then that those funds could be used for practically any purpose. Wagner then floated a few specific ideas, including an expansion to New West High School or the installation of an AstroTurf field at Buffalo High School, according to previous Bulletin reporting. 

While the volume of excess funds has increased since October 2020, the allocation of the money is taking place close to the end of June deadline partly because the district was waiting for expected budget reductions to K-12 education from the state Legislature that never actually happened, Belus said. 

Those cuts, however, would likely have played little into the decision to allocate these funds, because irrespective of any cuts, the excess money still had to be spent in the current fiscal year or be returned to the state. 

Trustee LeDoux was especially exasperated that the board had waited so long to decide what to do with the money. 

“I guess that’s why I’m upset, because we’ve known about this for months, and we are talking about it right before our last bill pay,” LeDoux said. “... So I feel like we’ve been backed into this corner, where we have sat on these funds that we knew were going to be excess funds. And now we can’t spend them unless we find a quick way to blow them.” 

As discussion drew to a close, the majority of trustees appeared to support larger than $1,000 bonuses, and a vote on the $1,000 amount failed 7-2, with Belus and Verplancke the only supporters. 

Trustee Mary McCorkle then moved for a $3,000 bonus, which was the amount eventually approved by the 5-4 vote. 

Following the vote, the meeting took a contentious turn, when Verplancke and Belus said for the record that they felt the board had not spent enough of the excess money directly on kids. Belus said the board spent money on bonuses and early retirements, and he felt they “still haven’t done anything for kids.” 

But McCorkle and LeDoux took exception to his statement. 

“We cannot keep accusing people that vote differently of not taking care of kids, that is not OK,” LeDoux said. “You’re saying that my vote, I’m not taking care of kids because I didn’t vote the same as you, and that’s not fair.” 

Belus then clarified that he meant he wanted to see some of the money go directly toward things that students in the district would use, but McCorkle again reiterated that the board had essentially run out of time for other options. 

The trustees then also discussed employment stipulations or time frames for employees to qualify for the bonuses, with several ideas thrown out, from no stipulations at all to a variety of different time frames the employees had to be with the district to qualify. 

In the end, to keep it as simple as possible for the business office to complete in time, the trustees voted 8-1 that all full- and part-time employees who were employed for the full 2020-21 school year and were still employed by the district on May 19 would receive the bonus. Trustee Brown was the lone no vote. 

Sarvey said bonuses will be paid out with the June paychecks for employees of the district who meet the employment time requirement.

Ryan Hanrahan joined the Bulletin in October 2020 and covers schools, county government and conservation. If you have ideas or feedback, reach out at ryan@buffalobulletin.com.

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