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School district looks to eliminate positions, tap reserve funds to balance budget

By Staff | Apr 5, 2011

The Lee County School Board will eliminate 23 positions and use $16 million in reserve funds next year if a $37 million shortfall materializes as projected, officials decided at a workshop held Tuesday afternoon.
Budget Director Dr. Ami Desamours told the board although they are weathering the worst economic downturn in recent history, Lee County not alone as other school districts, and municipalities across the state and nation, are experiencing the same kind of budgetary issues.
This year, district officials went to every principal meeting to have discussions with entire groups so personnel could hear directly from the budget office as to what to expect next year, she said.
Tuesday’s workshop addressed the school budget over the next three years. Desamours said she believes the budget will be in reduction mode for the next two years before FY14 will produce a more optimistic budget in which the school district will break even.
Three budget scenarios were presented: A best case scenario, which projects a $26 million shortfall and the use of $6.5 million in reserves; a realistic case scenario, which projects a $37 million shortfall and the use of $16 million in reserves; and a worst case scenario which projects a $52 million reduction and use of $20 million in reserves.
The board opted to use the realistic scenario for its projections. Desamours said this is probably where the district will end up for the next fiscal year.
Interim Superintendent Dr. Larry Tihen said the district has been preparing for this type of scenario for the past two to three years because they knew it would be coming.
The tentative plan includes adding full-time art and music back into the elementary level and planning time at the secondary level at $6.5 million. It also includes inflationary costs of $6 million, reduction of 2.5 percent of retirement contributions of $8 million to the district and an Ed Jobs Bill savings of $17 million. It will also would use $16 million of the district’s reserves with a loss left to cover of $8.5 million.
The retirement savings and the use of the Ed Jobs bill is a one-time savings for the district; once it is used the money is gone.
A reduction of $2.3 million of school flex dollars is also included in the realistic scenario. Desamours said the school flex dollars are used for personnel aside from classroom teachers, ESE teachers and custodial personnel because they are already allocated to the schools. She said the principals “buy” all the other positions they need for the school through the flex dollars.
Department reductions of 55 positions were also addressed as part of projected cost savings.
Desamours since the hiring freeze took place in January they only have 23 positions filled. Twenty-five of the 55 positions that may be eliminated are transportation positions, she said, because the district is trying to become more efficient in its bus routes. That calls for students to walk farther to bus stops, which is projected to save approximately $1 million.
Not everyone took the possibility of layoffs in stride.
“I don’t find that minimal at all,” Board Member Don Armstrong said about the number of positions. “I almost find that offensive. Twenty-three lives we are looking at cutting when I know for a fact that we have other ways to cut without affecting people.”
He offered such cost saving measures as cutting down the amount of paperwork given to board members. Armstrong said the district has to use a “scalpel and use it systematically” while determining next year’s budget.
Board member Jeanne Dozier said the board is going to have to make some real tough decisions when determining next year’s budget.
“I have been in the district when we have had to give people a pink slip,” she said about the potential elimination of jobs. “Unfortunately, the economy is what it is.”
Desamours said the district will not know how many people will be affected until they finish the budget process.
Other cost saving measures that she presented to the board Tuesday included the reduction of printing direct deposit statements for district employees, mandated direct deposit, potential savings in employee suspensions, creation of overtime exempt supervisory salary schedule, along with the continuation of the Transportation audit recommendations.
Board chairman Thomas Scott said he believes the district has an organizational problem.
“We have plenty of money in the budget, but we can’t allocate them in the right places,” he said.
Board Member Jane Kuckel said the board should give its direction for the realistic scenario until something better comes along. She said they should move forward with the other scenarios as back-ups.
Desamours said the legislature will finalize school districts budget during the first week of May. A presentation of the preliminary budget will be given in June and the approval of the tentative budget will be held in July.