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Leaders debate responsibility for making up deficit in schools budget

Whose fund balance should be used to cover the $2.5 million deficit in the Washington County School System’s budget was debated with administrators during the July 12 meeting of the Budget Committee.
“If I understood correctly, you are $800,000 under projected expenses and should have a $5.3 million fund balance (when the books for 2011-2012 are closed),” Mayor Dan Eldridge said. Schools Finance Director Beverly Thomas agreed.
Director of School Ron Dykes said an unexpected increase in revenue, especially through sales tax, and careful spending throughout the year are the reasons the school system did not have to use the $1.6 million pledged from its own fund balance to meet the needs of the 2012 budget.
Eldridge said the projected $5.3 million covers the one-to- three months of expenses recommended by the auditors and the 3 percent required by the state to be held in reserve.
During a telephone conversation that morning, Eldridge said Melissa Steagall-Jones, of the county’s auditing firm Blackburn, Childers and Steagall, confirmed taking the entire $2.5 million from the schools fund balance would not impact the system’s cash flow.
Dykes said fund balance is not always understood, and much of theirs is broken down into restricted dollars that can’t be turned into cash.
“When sales tax collection was down in 2009-2010, the county did not make up the promised funds,” Dykes said. “The county has put the schools in a hole by not making up the lean years.”
Whether the county is meeting the maintenance of effort requirement for support is the question, according to Dykes. “The school board is not a government (taxing) body, and the county has the responsibility to fund it,” he said.
Dykes said the budget is very conservative, and its consideration is desperately needed by the Budget Committee.
Commissioner Mitch Meredith questioned the additional $2.2 million requested for salaries. “I don’t think the state requires everyone to receive a 2.5 percent increase,” he said.
Dykes agreed, saying the mandate only applies to licensed instructional personnel. “The board decided years ago to apply the state mandate to all (employees), and what we’re doing here is maintaining a precedent,” he said.
Meredith said all the taxpayers aren’t receiving raises, and it’s wrong to dip into their money. “We can’t tell you how to allocate (the dollars), but I think you need to look at how rich it is,” he said.
The results of the Aug. 2 sales tax referendum will indicate how much taxpayers want to give to education, Meredith added.
Commissioner Pete Speropulos said the taxpayers helped build the county’s fund balance. “It’s our responsibility to use the money we have available in the schools budget,” he said.
Eldridge, Meredith, and Commissioners Ethan Flynn and Joe Grandy attended the schools Finance Committee meeting two days earlier to be available for any questions prior to the monthly meeting of the board of education that night.
“I thought we ought to show up,” Eldridge said. “I want there to be as much transparency as possible between the board of education and the commission as far as what we’re trying to do. I don’t want them to think we’re playing games.” During the presentation to the Budget Committee, Dykes said nine teaching positions and seven instructional assistant positions were eliminated in the revised budget.
“These positions were funded by federal dollars that no longer exist, but we are not recommending the county fund them,” he said. “This is a significant cut.”
Dykes also explained the school board’s reasons for adding $250,000 back to the budget for items that had been cut.
“We felt it was valuable to return technology to the proposal,” he said, listing smart boards for the classrooms as one of items that would be purchased with those funds.
As far as the school resource officers, Dykes said it is important to have as much security as possible. “We feel it is imperative, and adding two (SROs) back is the beginning of a long-range plan to have a school resource officer on every campus,” he said.
“We absolutely have to increase the funding to education to meet the mandates and provide the resources,” Dykes continued, estimating every teacher spends approximately $400 of personal funds on classroom needs.
Eldridge said there may be some other revenue sources to deal with a portion of the funding shortfall.
“We’re not in a position today to say we have a plan, but we do know the problem and we’re working on it,” he said.