Two school districts with a lot on their respective plates took action recently on issues of finance and leadership.

The South Washington County school board awarded Superintendent Keith Jacobus a new three-year contract and agreed on a budget-balancing plan for the 2015-16 school year that calls for the use of more than $3 million in reserve funds and nearly $5 million in cuts.

The Stillwater Area Public Schools narrowed the list of candidates for its top job and set a May 12 vote on a $97.5 million bond request to improve facilities and reconfigure grade levels. Ninth-graders would be moved from the junior highs to Stillwater Area High School under the plan.

Jacobus, nearing the end of a three-year contract, cited his district’s budget woes as reason to freeze his pay at $186,100 for the first year of his new deal. Under the agreement, he can receive raises in the second and third years of the contract if district finances improve.

To accomplish such a turnaround, South Washington County may have to ask voters for more money this fall.

First, however, was the matter of balancing the budget for 2015-16.

South Washington County faces a shortfall of as much as $8 million next year. But rather than balance the budget entirely through cuts, the district now plans to tap reserves and, in turn, remove from consideration proposals that included the elimination of band and orchestra at the elementary schools and a reduction in special-education staffing.

But it still has plans for $4.7 million in cuts through moves that include:

• Raising the staff-to-student ratio by one, thereby eliminating 25.5 full-time-equivalent (FTE) positions, at a savings of $1.4 million.

• Suspending bus purchases for a year, at a potential savings of $700,000.

• Eliminating world language at the elementary schools, thereby saving $550,000.

• Cutting the nursing staff by two FTE’s to save $110,000.

Looking ahead, the district is hopeful the state Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton approve additional funding for schools. It also is considering whether to pitch to voters in November an operating-levy increase and/or a bond proposal to address its long-term facility needs.

Stillwater election set

Stillwater’s decision to proceed with a May 12 vote came after a series of meetings with parents and community members.

Interim Superintendent Tom Nelson said the $97.5 million proposal is “tax neutral” because it requires no increase in what taxpayers currently pay to cover building-related debts. The new bond would replace debt set to expire in the next four years, he said recently. Key elements of the plan include $48 million in improvements to Stillwater Area High and construction of a $25.7 million elementary school in the southwest corner of the district.

The district now has grade 7-9 junior highs, but would replace them with grade 6-8 middle schools. Ninth-graders would be shifted to the high school. Nelson noted recently that the district already transports about 15 percent of its ninth-graders to the high school for accelerated classes.

Nelson is in his second stint as interim superintendent, and the school board is nearing a decision on who will replace him when his contract expires June 30.

This week, the board plans to interview four superintendent candidates — David Dude, chief operating officer for the Iowa City Community School District; Richard Lahn, interim superintendent of the Nashwauk-Keewatin School District; Denise Pontrelli, executive director of educational services for Spring Lake Park Schools; and Richard Spiccuza, deputy superintendent for Mounds View Public Schools — in anticipation of naming a new leader in mid-March.