School funding shortfall fix?

Gary B. Gray • Jul 12, 2012 at 9:36 PM

The Washington County Commission’s Budget Committee is now into its third month of raking over the county school system’s expenses line by line. Both sides have met at the table numerous times, and always there’s the shifting in the seats, the wrinkled brows and the literal gnashing of teeth.

However, County Mayor Dan Eldridge on Thursday eluded to some type of potential action the county might be able to take to stave off further cuts. Eldridge said he was working with County Attorney John Rambo in this process.

“It’s not a tax,” Eldridge said when asked about specifics. “Honestly, I can’t elaborate because, as of this hour at least, I just don’t know what Washington County would be able to accomplish. It involves legalities. And all I can say is we’re trying to create alternative resources.”

On June 19, Washington County Schools Director Ron Dykes initially requested about $4.2 million from the Budget Committee to make ends meet in its estimated $64 million fiscal year 2013 budget.

Committee members, not wanting to put the county’s fund balance in jeopardy, recommended Dykes go back to the Board of Education and request that it approve pulling about $2.2 million from this year’s projected ending fund balance of more than $6 million to cover some, but not all, of projected expenditures in FY 2013.

The board met and decided it could cut $1.6 million from the originally proposed budget. This includes eliminating nine teaching positions supported by federal Title I money and includes math and reading teachers. This does not include an additional $500,000 in expenses from the elimination of seven instructional assistants, also funded by Title I.

The board also agreed to cut its estimated capital outlay, yank $20,000 from Dykes’ administrative funds and shave off money meant for technology and health services.

“We took that back to the board and looked at the numbers,” Dykes told committee members Thursday. “We’re not asking that you fund those positions that no longer exist, but this still leaves us more than $2.5 million in the hole.”

Or does it?

If you do the “long” math, you’ll see that the money the committee asked to be considered for use from the school system’s fund balance is left out of the equation. Dykes said if that number — $2.2 million — were used, it would leave the school system about $750,000 in the red.

But there was no instruction Thursday to pull that from the schools’ fund balance. There was no definitive talk of where that would come from, though it was the main talking point on June 19.

One can only deduce that if Eldridge and Rambo find a way to legally transfer funds or create new revenue, it would be a method that covers the $2.2 million. Also, the fact that the state requires the school system to maintain a fund balance equal to 3 percent of its total budget has been bandied about. The requirement applies only at the beginning an end of a fiscal year, so officials may be considering a short window of opportunity in which something could be arranged.

“We have a very serious problem,” Eldridge said near the end of the meeting. “With the loss of BEP funding, we’re going to face a shortfall every year. I appreciate the efforts the school board has made to work with us. I don’t want this to end up being a contest between the school board and us about how much money you’re going to get every year.”

Dykes showed little emotion at Thursday’s meeting, but he had no problem articulating it.

“The board considers this a bare-bones budget to maintain a common core curriculum,” he said. “To meet the needs of students in Washington County, we absolutely have to increase funding. If not, this puts students at risk. That’s where we stand.”

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