05/04/10 — Wayne County Board of Education awaits state budget news

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Wayne County Board of Education awaits state budget news

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on May 4, 2010 1:46 PM

The Board of Education approved a $22 million local budget Monday night, but not before hearing three different scenarios of how the economic situation may play out pending what the state hands down.

At an afternoon work session prior to the regular meeting, Superintendent Dr. Steven Taylor said the news has not been good. The economic outlook, as well as a decrease in the anticipated income tax and sales revenues, remain ominous for the district budget.

Attempting to pare down expenses, Taylor said every effort is being made to protect jobs while maintaining a quality of education for the county's children.

It's a statewide problem, the superintendent said, prompting "a lot of concern" among superintendents in the 115 school districts.

Last year in N.C., there were $225 million in discretionary cuts, he said, and this year the governor is proposing $135 million in discretionary cuts. When the ax started to fall earlier this year, of 16,000 state-paid education firings, he said 4,000 of those have been teaching positions.

Taylor said he hopes to prevent anything like that from happening in Wayne County.

"Our job is to educate children, and to do with the dollars that we have," he said. "We don't want to cut personnel because then we're cutting services and also those that are left standing have to shoulder the responsibility."

So far, the district has been among the fortunate ones. It has not had to make deep cuts to personnel.

"We had to cut $3 million out of our budget this past year ... this year, we're 90 positions down less than we were the previous year and know that we have to cut another $1 million out of the budget," he said.

The district has been able to avoid layoffs through attrition, either from retirements or relocation.

Unfortunately, Taylor said, attrition "does not come in neat packages." Human resources is still getting the numbers where retirements will be. And should some be top-heavy in one particular program area, there will have to be hires made to compensate so that the needed programs remain solvent.

Stimulus money has helped offset some of the problems, but that was only a two-year solution. At the same time, he noted, the district made the decision to use the money for technology and textbooks rather than personnel.

"We chose not to do that simply because we knew this was coming," he said. "We didn't think it was fiscally responsible to hire these additional people if we would have to lay them off in two years."

Part of the dilemma in planning a budget lies in the unknown -- in this case, what will happen at the state level.

For that reason, three budget scenarios were presented to the board for consideration -- one at the same level of funding, one with a 5 percent cut across all categories and one reflecting the impact of the governor's proposal.

"When you look at it, the bottom line, we started out with appropriations this year of $21.8 million," said Nan Barwick, assistant superintendent for finance. A proposed increase of $343,000 brings the figure for the projected 2010-11 budget to $22 million.

Cutting 5 percent in each category would save the district $211,337 while, according to the governor's proposal, the district would have to come up with another $382,000.

The district's fund balance, money in emergency reserve, has been mentioned as a resource. But school officials are not inclined to go that route.

"I need to stress that our fund balance is not high -- $1.8 million. It takes about $2 million a month just to clear checks around here," Taylor said. "If we go through this budget process we're looking at trying to protect positions, the quality of education for our children, but also to protect that fund balance. ... I can't sit here today and tell you exactly how we will do it but I can tell you we are working feverishly on it."

While the stimulus money runs through next year, there is no telling how long the current economic situation will continue, Taylor said.

"Our sense is we're going to be in this for a couple years," he said. "Right now we're getting lots of information, but nothing is certain until they pass the budget."

The local budget must next be approved by the county commission. The governor's budget, meanwhile, must receive passage by both the State and the House.

Hopefully, it will prioritize education sufficiently, officials said.

In addition to teaching positions and specialized programs, the list of needs in the local district continues to grow.

Mrs. Barwick said one of the priorities will always be safety, which equates to keeping the schools properly maintained. From a long-needed roof at Southern Wayne High School to the stalled construction projects at Norwayne and Eastern Wayne middle schools, officials said they hope to be able to keep pace in the coming year.

"It's a complicated process," Taylor said of the budget preparation. "The dollars are short, as we have known they would be for some time. We will continue to do our best to level services for our students. It will mean that we have to look at areas to cut and try to protect positions as best we can."

Board Chairman Rick Pridgen said the administration did a commendable job on the local budget.

"We're in a situation that each year we're having to do more with less," he said. "It's not an easy decision to have to make the cuts that we have to make.

"We will be sending this over to the county commissioners ... (and) we will be having to make adjustments as we get more information from the state."