'Positive variance' seen in schools' budget

Friday, June 3, 2011

By their next meeting on June 16, school board budget committeemen should "know where we stand," according to chairman Donnie Moses.

Committee members have asked for more information from budget director Sheila Cook-Jones. Currently, there is a $682,000 "positive variance" of revenue over costs.

"Where does this come from?" asked Kristen Gold, a former budget committee chairman.

"Expenses may be down," Cook-Jones answered. "Revenues may be up a little."

"It would be helpful to know where we saved," Gold said. "That's a big number."

Gold and Moses are aware that county commissioners will soon take a close look at all the numbers in the schools' budget.

"Sometime we're going to have to explain it," Gold said.

Moses agreed.

"We need to understand where the money's being spent," he said.

Right now, it would appear that next year's budget might need $1 million from the fund balance. This would still leave the required three percent, but, as Gold pointed out, "We're putting ourselves in a position where we can't do it again next year."

Schools director Roy Dukes explained that the budget under discussion "doesn't include many things from the wish lists - if any."

Moses mentioned that the Tennessee School Boards Association is promoting another way to calculate a school system's maintenance of effort budget: get a per capita dollar figure for the students educated the previous year, and then multiply it by the projected number of students for the coming year.

Schools director Roy Dukes estimated the increase in students would be "well over 100," but special education supervisor Lisa Ventura thought it could be many more.

"I've had a lot of calls from tornado victims (in north Alabama)," she said. "They're not going to have their schools rebuilt by August." Ventura said that after Hurricane Katrina, the number of students enrolled in Marshall County went up 2.6 percent.

"It's hard to do more with less when it comes to the kids," Moses said. "It's hard to justify spending less."

Randy Perryman suggested taking a serious look at possible savings to be achieved through Distance Learning, but discussion revealed some complicating factors.

Assistant director Dr. Larry Miller said they used Distance Learning when he was principal at Forrest, but a certified teacher had to be in the room with the students. If it were to be used as Perryman envisioned, teaching a class simultaneously at all three high schools, there would be scheduling problems, since the schools are not on the same timetable. Perryman said the class could be recorded and taken at different times, but Miller said, "No, it has to be real-time to have the live interaction with the teacher."

Committee members encouraged Dukes and the school principals to continue to seek Distance Learning opportunities, and try to use the equipment to the maximum.

"That's what we got it for," Ann Tears exclaimed.

Committee member Harvey Jones Jr. took issue with federal budget numbers.

"The state and federal government are missing the mark," Jones said. "Teachers should have been top priority doing the budget."

Federal projects director Linda Williams-Lee explained she had federal money for eight Title I schools [so-classified because of the amount of economically underprivileged students based on free or reduced lunches served] in Marshall County but had to "spiral it down."

"It's up to the principals to determine who to serve [educate] with the extra staff" paid for by federal dollars, Williams-Lee said. "They do a needs assessment, and every school does something different."

"I feel like they're cutting us short," Jones complained. "They need to look at the students. There ought to be a better way of doing it."