Wash. Co. schools may be forced to cut jobs to balance budget

Gary B. Gray • Jun 14, 2012 at 6:37 AM

Non-mandated positions and programs will be at the top of the cut list should Washington County Schools’ estimated $4.2 million budget deficit not find a fix.

“The nursing program, technology program, athletics, maintenance, instructional assistants,” Director of Schools Ron Dykes said after the county’s Budget Committee had raked through the proposed $64 million budget for the 2012-13 school year — again. “Then, if it gets crucial, we start looking at assistant principals, but the first cuts would be in personnel.”

Dykes returned to the table Wednesday, bringing with him answers to questions requested May 21 by County Mayor Dan Eldridge. After quickly clearing away line-item transfer requests and other matters, the mayor thanked Dykes for his responses, which included facts on issues ranging from individual positions to an inventory of buses to enrollment figures.

“I’d love to come before you and present a balanced budget, but sadly this is the fourth straight budget that is not balanced,” Dykes said as he began a presentation. “Over these years, we’ve not received operating funds when new schools opened, and a loss of sales tax revenue put us in a deep hole.”

Though sales tax revenue is beginning to look a bit better, it’s a drop in the bucket of what is needed to replace one-time federal grant funds and another reduction in state BEP funding.

“As of June 30, we are losing the equivalent of about $5 million in ARRA (The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) funds,” he said. “We’re anticipating another $600,000 reduction in BEP funds. On top of that, we’re dealing with health insurance increases. We also have increases in fuel and utility costs, and we’re constantly bombarded with unfunded mandates.”

The end result: Budget Committee members seem to have a better understanding of the proposed school budget, particularly, more specifics on the nooks and crannies — the expenditures tucked in among the jawdroppers. But there’s more to come. Eldridge suggested the committee recess and meet next week to give the Budget Committee a chance to digest the numbers.

“Let’s come prepared to make a recommendation,” he told members.

The words “property tax” were not uttered Wednesday. However, the Washington County voters will decide a sales tax referendum on Aug. 2. Members of the city and county boards of education would like to see the local rate raised from the current 2.5 percent to the maximum 2.75 percent allowed under state law to fund local schools.

Dykes said there will be a joint city/county Board of Education meeting next week to “finalize our strategy” for the referendum.

The last sales tax hike in Washington County was approved in May 1994.

Transportation, equipment and technology were among the most scrutinized expenditures, but personnel topped the list.

The estimated cost for “regular instruction,” which includes teacher salaries, retirement, health insurance, substitutes, text books and everyday maintenance is nearly $36 million. That’s more than 52 percent of the entire budget. And, that number is up by $1.3 million over this year.

Eldridge asked Dykes for a more detailed breakdown on BEP funding. He then thanked him for his efforts and called his report and additional clarifications “very helpful.”

“We’ve already looked at what could be cut,” Dykes said. “It’s going to be up to commissioners to decide what they feel is expendable.”

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