04/06/12 — Schools worried about funding

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Schools worried about funding

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on April 6, 2012 1:46 PM

School officials and the Wayne County Board of Education took the first step Thursday toward formulating a local expense and capital outlay budget for 2012-13 in the midst of a precarious climate that includes possible reversions from the state and rising fuel costs.

The two-hour work session also evoked a discussion among board members about the district's fund balance and the possibility of asking county commissioners to raise its appropriation for the coming year.

Dr. Steve Taylor, schools superintendent, said the school system is, again, trying to work within "limited resources" in the midst of a bleak economic outlook.

"The school budgets have been cut the last four years," he said, referring to the state and General Assembly allocating money for education and then quickly taking back a chunk.

He said the reversion history spoke for itself -- in 2008-09, $759,977 was recalled from Wayne County by the state, followed by $2.9 million the following year and then nearly $4 million in 2010-11. This past year, reverted funds totaled $5.6 million.

Now, officials say they are projecting that amount could rise to $6.5 million for 2012-13.

"Unless we get some relief from the General Assembly, we will have to find close to $1 million (to absorb that)," Taylor said.

Added to that, the district was recently "blindsided" to learn that low wealth funding will be reduced next year by $432,114, said Nan Barwick, assistant superintendent for finance, who prepared the proposed budget.

"Those were dollars we were counting on," Taylor said.

Budgeting for buses and transportation next year is also a challenge, as fuel costs continue to climb, said Mrs. Barwick.

"The transportation allotment will probably be extremely in the red before the year is out. We're going to be struggling in that area," she said.

Such threats create a challenge in putting together a budget, Taylor said, making it a "best estimate of what we have to do."

"It could all change," he said. "The General Assembly has not passed the budget. We don't know if they're going to give us any reduction in discretionary cuts."

To date, he has prided himself on not having to resort to layoffs of personnel. Attrition and retirements have offset the need to make cuts.

The threat of that changing still looms large, though.

"We really need to cut about 10 certified jobs or about 15 classified positions to keep our head above water, without going into our fund balance," Taylor said. "At the end of the year, we'll be looking at our attrition rate, those that are retiring, and hopefully we can move it around and not have to lay off anybody. But we don't know how that will be until then."

The superintendent added that the district has tried to maintain its fund balance at around $2 million, the amount it takes each month just to clear checks.

Ideally, Mrs. Barwick said, she would be comfortable having two months of operating cash on hand.

"I would like for our board to consider the possibility, because surely if county commissioners see that we don't need to dissolve our fund balance, maybe we can ask the county commissioners to raise our appropriation," board member Arnold Flowers said.

It wouldn't be the first time the board had approached the commission with such a request, board member Rick Pridgen said.

"I'm not going to say they're going to do it, but I think we should ask," Flowers said.

Board member Chris West asked what would happen were there ever a dire emergency, like the tornadoes that recently struck schools in other states. Would the schools here simply be shut down, he asked.

"We're walking on thin ice," he said.

"We have been walking on this ice for some time," Mrs. Barwick replied.

Taylor said it was at the board's discretion to make such a request from the commission but recommended a specific amount be given.

West suggested using the two-month barometer for the amount.

No vote was taken on the proposed budget, which will brought back to the board for official approval at its May 7 meeting and then presented to the commission by the May 15 deadline.