Commissioners want lower spending plan from schools' board

Monday, August 31, 2009

Marshall County's Budget Committee sent school system leaders back to their central office on Wednesday asking them to find a way to trim their budget one more time.

The schools' budget was then totaling some $34.74 million, according to the system's budget director Janet Wiles who spoke about the spending plan and state requirements with other school leaders in the Courthouse Annex as the Budget Committee turned to other department budgets.

"We asked for maintenance of effort," School Board member Craig Michael said with an explanation that state law prohibits local governments from cutting the amount that's spent on education.

Last summer, the schools' budget was authorized at $35.22 million and, during the fiscal year of 2008-09, the system restricted spending to $33.9 million, according to school system records maintained by school budget director Janet Wiles.

The difference was added to "fund balance," an account sometimes described as reserves, although there's a state law requiring three percent of a budget to be set aside for continuing operations. Some of the difference has been added to the spending plan for the 2009-10 school year budget.

School Board member Kristen Gold on Wednesday emphasized that school spending last year went down from what was authorized last summer. Thursday, Wiles substantiated the point with numbers she provided. The numbers show school spending last year dropped some $1.32 million. Now, for the school year that's just started, the balance is to be split between reserves and proposed spending.

Still, commissioners sought reductions to restrict spending and preserve the current property tax rate of $3.09 per $100 of assessed value of a taxable property.

Commissioners Don Ledford and Mary Ann Neil questioned the system's proposed spending on professional development, now budgeted at $60,000, Michael said. In the 2007-08 school year, and several years earlier, the amount averaged about $10,000 for all certified personnel.

While spending is to be cut, commissioners indicated they want the school system to increase their budget's fund balance, an account sometimes likened to a rainy day fund. It's a source of money in case a roof is broken.

The fund balance is now about three percent of the total and commissioners want it to be to about five to six percent, Michael said.

After the Budget Committee discussed the issue, Commissioner Jimmy Wolaver moved to send the budget back to the School Board for more reductions. The vote was unanimous.

Commissioners concluded they'd recess their Budget Committee meeting so they could be ready to reconvene after a special called meeting of the School Board to vote on whatever might emerge from the school system's Budget committee.

Quick action is needed because the fiscal year started July 1 and after mid-September the school system's access to state funds could be affected.

Four-term County Commissioner Rocky Bowden, a 38-year education veteran who retired last year as vice principal of Forrest School, pointed out the commission doesn't have much choice but to provide the amount funded last year because of the state law on maintenance of effort.

"We're trying to create a better public opinion of a budget by reducing numbers that are going to have no effect on the property tax rate," Bowden said. "Any further cuts to this budget could be detrimental to our students."

The Budget committee has sent the school system's latest spending plan back to the school board for more reductions.

"It's a tough situation, but I think that's what needs to be done," Wolaver said.

Bowden said, "The cut of the money out of ... staff development ... that will have an effect on our students...

"As long as the board does not go over the maintenance of effort budget," he said of the state requirement, "there's no effect on the tax rate."

Bowden also noted a long-held fact of financial life between county commissions and school boards across the state with regard to budgeting and spending authority.

"The commission does not control line-item spending," Bowden said of the limit on county commissions which appropriate money for schools.

School boards spend the money without restraint by the commission other than when the budget is assembled.

"Spending is down from last year because we have made such an effort this year," Gold said.

As chairwoman of the Board's Budget Committee, she should know, and she reported: "There has been a real concerted effort."

Nevertheless, the price of diesel fuel is hard to predict and the fact that its price has not shot up as it and gasoline did last year has provided local governments some relief.

Bowden concluded, "As long as the School Board is not asking for a tax increase, I'm confident they (the school administration) will do its best to keep spending to a minimum and maintain the quality of our children's education."