Budget concerns addressed at Peek’s last Town Hall
By Kathryn Schiliro
Morgan County Board of Education (BOE) member for District 1, Minnie Peek, held her final Town Hall meeting last Thursday, Oct. 25.
About 20 people were present at Calvary Baptist Church for the more-than-40-year veteran educator’s meeting, which featured an explication of the school board’s budget by Superintendent Dr. Ralph Bennett, followed by a question-and-answer session.
Bennett began with a preface to the budget discussion.
From 2003 to the present, the state legislature has withheld more than $14 million that Morgan County has earned based on enrollment. Last year alone, Bennett said, the state held back more than $2 million.
“The budget situation...is driving every decision we make,” Bennett told those present. “These are your children, our children, that are being affected by these decisions.”
While other tax-collecting entities in the county, i.e. city and county governments, have other sources of revenue, Bennett said the BOE’s operating fund really only has two: property tax revenue, which school system administration is projecting at $11.7 million for the fiscal year, and proceeds from the state, projected at more than $13.3 million. However, Bennett said, the school system doesn't start collecting property tax revenues until this January–and they're predicting a 97 percent collection rate–and state funding isn't cemented until January, when final enrollment numbers are in.
The good news is that, through equalization, the state may provide the school system with more than is expected. Each system statewide puts money into a pot each year, which the state turns around and "re-gifts" to the bottom 75 percent of system based on property values.
"I'm hoping state allotment will increase because of the drop in property values," Bennett said.
With revenues projected around $25 million, expenditures for the current fiscal year come to $27 million, 89 percent of those expenditures going to salaries and benefits, Bennett said. The other roughly 10 percent goes to the operation of the school system.
To make matters more complicated, the BOE has had to account for an state-mandated increase of $250,000 for classified employees this year and next fiscal year. In addition, the BOE is looking at $600,000 in salary step increases for teachers. Part of those step increases–about 73 percent of the $600,000–is required by the state, but there is a county supplement that is on the table for next year's budget discussions, Bennett said.
The $1.7 million difference between revenues and expenditures will be made up by the school system's $2.1 million in reserves, leaving the flexible portion of reserve money at $400,000. A side note, Bennett explained the school system must always keep $5.9 million in the reserve to pay salaries and benefits through December; this covers for the lack of local and state funding that won't come through until the beginning of the year.
To otherwise relieve the financial situation, Bennett reminded those gathered that the BOE cut 10 employee days–two of which are students days–and has eliminated between 35 and 42 positions through attrition, or not rehiring for non-essential positions where teachers retired or resigned. However, teachers have expressed the need for the pre- and post-planning days that were cut, so the BOE will have the task next fiscal year of determining where to cut as far as employee days.
"The question is where to cut...without affecting student achievement," Bennett said.
Asked why teachers were protected from layoffs thus far, Bennett used a school's art program as an example.
"If we cut one art teacher, then there's no art program at the school," he said. "Our last choice is to cut people...but we're not going to borrow money."
Bennett was also asked whether is was necessary to have so many employees in the central office. He explained that those housed in the central office don't necessarily work for in school system administration, citing the examples of the full-time enrollment and full-time school social worker, each of whom work with the indivudual schools.
He added that the system earns state funds for the superintendent, two assistant superintendents and social worker positions. Moreover, he said, the system earns almost two positions for special education director, a title filled by an assistant superintendent who is, then, essentially doing the work of about three employees.
Bennett further explicated state requirements as far as school administration. Both the middle and high schools earn two assistant principal positions; the middle school does have two, but the high school has three. This is possible because two of those assistant prinicpals are half-time.
Asked about the status of the high school principal position, Bennett maintained that Jim Malanowski is considered the interim principal and that the position would again go up for applications in January. Malanowski would have to re-apply "just like everyone else," Bennett said. As last time, applicants will be interviews by the school council, then Bennett before being hired by the BOE.
Both candidates for Peek's District 1 seat on the BOE–Democrat Erica Veasley and Republican Dick Hodgetts–were present.
"There is work to do, but you will enjoy working with the other board members," Peek, a 12-year BOE veteran, told the candidates.
Then, with a smile, she added, "Most of them were 'my children.'"
Printed in the November 1, 2012 edition.