Back burner

Back burner

How much will fit on the back burner?

Districts struggling with ways to fund mandated pay raises for 2015-16
Kentucky School Advocate
February 2015
 
By Madelynn Coldiron
Staff Writer
 
Kentucky school districts are in the process of cooking up their 2015-16 draft budgets, and between absorbing the cost of a state-mandated 2 percent pay increase and a midyear SEEK cut, “back burner” is a frequently heard reference.
 
“You’ve got an unfunded mandate on top of a cut,” summed up Campbellsville Independent Superintendent Mike Deaton.
 
The combination means rethinking some projects until the financial picture is a bit more clear, he said, adding, “We’ll have to prioritize some things now and put some things on the back burner.”
Rowan County Superintendent Marvin Moore said he gave the school board an early warning prior to draft budget preparation that begins in January. “There’s no question that we’re going to have to make some tough decisions,” he said.
 
Harrison County Schools’ numbers illustrate the situation districts are in. Finance Director Julie Asher said the district will get a $70 per-pupil increase in state funding for 2015-16, amounting to $191,000, but the cost of the 2 percent increase for general fund employees is $264,000.
 
And that doesn’t count extending the same increase to grant-funded positions, which Superintendent Andy Dotson said Harrison County will do, “so that’s going to be an even bigger hit.”
 
The 2 percent raise will cost Pikeville Independent $128,000, said Superintendent Jerry Green. The school board has already done about all it can to boost local funding by increasing tuition and setting a tax rate that generates 4 percent more revenue than the previous year, he noted.
 
Because the district’s enrollment is growing, “we won’t be laying off any teachers,” or not filling vacancies, he added.
 
Deaton says he doesn’t foresee the situation leading to personnel cuts, noting that Campbellsville has been shaving jobs over the past six years of his tenure, either through attrition or loss of funds.
Likewise, Harrison County has been trimming through attrition and consolidating duties among employees, Dotson said, but warned, “Next year it’s going to be much more difficult for us because we’re at that point where you don’t have a lot of room to where you can say, ‘Let’s eliminate a position.’ Anything you do at this point is going to have an impact in that classroom.”
 
Dawson Springs Independent has been evaluating staff-to-student ratios and has lost a couple positions through attrition, mostly due to shrinking enrollment, Superintendent Leonard Whalen said.
 
“I think we’re probably not going to take as significant a hit as we would have taken if we hadn’t done anything to this point,” he said. “But it’s still going to sting. And to be honest, we may have to do more.”
 
Carlisle County Superintendent Jay Simmons said his district has already cut positions “almost to the bone.” He said the budget crunch for 2015-16 “could mean cutting into days of 240-day employees. We try to look at everything before we cut the position completely,” he said.
 
Moore said there may be two or three teacher retirements in Rowan County, and “I don’t look for us replacing those positions.”
 
Other options
Harrison County will need to dip into its contingency fund for the 2015-16 budget. “I would not be surprised if that’s the common practice throughout the state,” Dotson said.
 
Fulton County Superintendent Aaron Collins, whose district had already sustained a big blow through an ex-employee’s theft of $425,000, said his team is looking for ways to get the biggest bang for their buck.
 
“We’ll have to get creative,” he said. “It just makes us look at Title I more, Title II more, looking at those funds and whether we are using them to the nth degree, to their maximum capacity.”
 
Collins said he still is hoping to be able to hire a full-time instructional coach next year as a resource. “It’s just like gold for our teachers,” he said.
 
Likewise, Deaton wants to hang onto plans for a technology upgrade. “It’s something that’s going to be needed for our kids, so at all costs we want to keep that on the table so we can proceed with that, and then some other things will probably have to be put on the back burner until another time when things look a little better,” he said.
 
Dotson said his team hasn’t made any definite decisions on where to cut, but said the situation could affect bus purchases and “extras” like the purchase of reading and math programs.
 
Simmons was looking at some paving projects and a mower purchase this year, but may have to shelve those plans. “We’ll have to look at the end of the year and say, ‘Do we still have money for this or not? Is that something we can still do or is it something that we’re just going to have to ride for a couple of years?’”
 
Green, the Pikeville superintendent, pointed to the consequences of putting maintenance and big-ticket purchases or projects on the back burner.
 
“What happens, as in most all districts, is you cut in preventive maintenance, which eventually comes back to haunt you down the road because you’re trying to save for today but it’s far more prudent to implement those preventive maintenance repairs now,” he said.
 
Likewise, Green said, postponing the purchase of items usually bought in rotation, such as school buses or cafeteria equipment, can mean waiting even longer to make those purchases if unexpected expenses keep cropping up.
 

 
Board View: Reaching the boiling point
If school district needs are being put on the back burner because budgets are being squeezed by mandated salary increases and other pressures, then picture Bill Redwine on the front burner, boiling over.
 
Redwine, chairman of the Rowan County school board, said he’s likely not the only school board member in the state who is at the boiling point over funding issues.
 
Compensating for the additional expense of a 2 percent salary increase next fiscal year is “going to be tough; it’s going to be a struggle,” he said.
 
“I’ve been on the board 26 years. We’ve had tough times in those 26 years – we’ve had to look at cuts, we’ve had to look at putting things on hold and those kinds of things,” he said. “But I think that everybody is down to such bare bones now that the next round of cuts is going to impact academic programs. I don’t see any way around it.”
 
School funding can’t keep being pushed down to the local level, he said. Rowan County is in an especially difficult situation in that regard, he said, because between the Daniel Boone National Forest, Morehead State University and a few others, 35 percent of its property is tax-exempt.
 
“Our property owners are ready to revolt if we go to any kind of additional property tax revenue. And in the grand scheme of things, a property tax increase in Rowan County is going to be peanuts compared to what we need,” Redwine said.
 
He doesn’t see the situation improving unless the legislature “bites the bullet” and takes a look at the recommendations made by the governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Tax Reform.
 
“I think some of the people in the legislature have lost sight of what KERA was all about – when KERA came about it came about as a result of unfair funding. I think we’re almost at the point of something drastic needing to be done like that to send a message,” Redwine said.
 

 
Fairview not sweating the budget crunch
Tiny Fairview Independent is in an enviable position when putting together its 2015-16 budget. A community referendum affirmed the utilities tax its board approved a year and a half ago. Because of this, the midyear SEEK cut won’t pinch, while the 2 percent employee raise is a moot point.
 
“It’s not gloom and doom for us,” Superintendent Bill Musick said. “Three years ago, I’d have been in a panic” over the SEEK cut.
 
The tax will bring in $1.2 million annually and the board pledged to spend it on facilities and long-overdue pay raises. Fairview employees got a 3 percent raise this year and will get another 3 percent in 2015-16, Musick said, adding, “They deserved every penny of it.”
 
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