Thanks to some changes in staff health insurance and a recent audit finding, Belgrade School District has more than $1 million to spend on a boost for students at all grade levels.
Discussions are “very preliminary,” but school officials say the money may be used to fund a technology initiative to get computing devices for every kid in the district, pending Belgrade School Board approval. Gone would be the days of mobile laptop carts and computer lab sign-up sheets.
At their regular board meeting Monday night, trustees heard an audit report for fiscal year 2016 from a representative of Denning, Downey & Associates. Because findings from the previous year were ameliorated and no glaring issues were found, the auditor gave the district an unmodified opinion, essentially a high passing grade.
Due to some big operational changes in the past year involving accounting software and health insurance, though, a few changes must be made. In light of the audit report, Belgrade Schools Superintendent Leland Stocker said the district finance committee recommends closing a fund once used for self-insurance and moving the money in it, around $1,505,000, to the district’s miscellaneous fund.
According to Belgrade School District Clerk Jay Bates, the district used to be fully insured through the Montana Unified School Trust, or MUST. He said it was like a pool of money that participating school districts contributed to so they could provide health insurance for their employees.
When premiums through MUST started increasing too quickly, though, Bates said the district hired an insurance consultant who advised they open a self-insurance fund to augment MUST.
So, the new fund was opened in fiscal year 2011-2012 with money adjusted from the general fund. District employees were partially insured with MUST still, but the district covered insurance claims less than $5,000 through the self-insurance fund.
Still unsatisfied with premium costs a couple of years later, district officials decided to revisit their insurance set up, Bates said.
Another consultant advised the district to either go fully self-insured, or shop around for a new health insurance company to cover everything. Because the district isn’t large enough to fully fund insurance, officials opted to switch to Blue Cross/Blue Shield two years ago.
“Insurance companies aren’t going to be interested in letting you go half and half,” Bates said. “Basically, they want all of your business.”
So, that left around $1.5 million sitting in the self-insurance fund. Bates said he left it there while the district went through some payroll difficulties after switching to a new accounting software. Now, though, the auditor says the fund must be closed.
After discussing the matter with the Office of Public Instruction, the auditor and several other authorities, Bates said it’s been determined that the district trustees “have the ability to put the balance of those funds anywhere they so choose.”
His and Belgrade Schools IT Director Jeff West’s recommendation is the technology initiative
“So $1 million dollars will be dedicated toward improving the students’ education if the board passes it,” Bates said. “The balance of the money will be set aside for board discretion. This is going to be a very positive thing for students.”
Some of the remaining $500,000 or so must go to retiree health insurance, Bates added. The rest will be set aside for later use at the board’s discretion.
West said the idea behind the technology initiative is to set up every student in the district with their own computing device, whether that’s a lap top each high school student can carry around and take home, or chrome books housed for every kid in elementary classrooms. He anticipates needing to purchase around 2,000 to meet that goal.
“It’s a huge opportunity for the district that will affect every student,” West said. “It’s a wonderful model for them, to have that continued access. To get to that point without this sort of funding would be very difficult.”
Pending board approval, West estimated it would take between six months and two years to shop around for devices and get them into the hands of Belgrade students.
Bates said the school board must approve the plan before they move ahead with it. At the meeting Monday night, trustees agreed to hold a special meeting sometime next week to further discuss the matter.