Decision time arrives for Fayette BoE cost-cutting

When it comes to academics the Fayette County School System is in fine shape. But in terms of finances, 2012 was the year that saw a majority vote by the Fayette County Board of Education to kick the fiscal can down the road for the last time. And 2013 will be the year the new school board will have to pick up the pieces and make historic cuts that will take effect July 1.

The first meeting of the board that features two new members is Monday, Jan. 7.

The time of reckoning for the school system’s finances came with the announcement last summer by former Superintendent Jeff Bearden that the budget for the 2013-2014 school year that begins in July would have to include up to $20 million in cuts in order to balance.

The current budget adopted last June has revenues of $163 million and expenditures of $177 million. The budget was balanced by using $14 million of what was then a $15 million fund balance.

Work by a cost-cutting committee headed by Deputy Superintendent Sam Sweat was formed during the summer and began looking at areas to reduce spending next year. Meantime, the school system stepped up its recent posture of leaving many vacated positions empty, a move that by the end of November had saved approximately $3 million in personnel dollars and is expected to save more by the end of the school year. Sweat said the school system will continue to monitor positions that are not currently filled or have a long-term substitute and will continue to monitor purchase orders and expenses.

Sweat in December summarized the cost-cutting committee’s assessment, saying the school system must see a total savings of $14-15 million for the coming school year. To accomplish this, said Sweat, personnel in central office and in schools must be reduced and the school system must be more efficient with facilities by closing an as yet undetermined number of schools.

As had been noted by Bearden last spring, approximately 91 percent of the operating budget is personnel. Sweat stressed that the personnel cuts must be strategic so the quality of the school system is not adversely affected. The budget process needs to proceed quickly, Sweat added, so affected staff know where they stand in terms of employment.

Cost-cutting efforts thus far show a projected school system fund balance for June 30 of approximately $6 million, with just over half of that amount showing up as savings so far this year in personnel. But that amount is a far cry from the historic cuts that will be required to abide by state law and adopt a balanced budget in June.

One of the items Bearden referenced last summer for possible cuts included the positions not funded by state QBE (Quality Basic Education) dollars, positions that are funded entirely by local taxpayers. All totaled, there are 350 positions funded exclusively by Fayette County taxpayers. Sweat said those positions, accounting for salary and benefits, total $16.67 million and include:

– 117 parapros at $2.925 million

– 14.5 counselors at $1.09 million

– 14.5 assistant principals at $1.3 million

– 49 secretaries at $1.23 million

– 150 teachers at $9.75 million

– middle school athletics at $250,000

– 5 parking lot attendants at $125,000 (parking fees help defray this cost)

Sweat in the presentation stressed that there is “no way we can take away that many teachers,” adding that the school system has been reducing teaching positions since 2009.

Sweat said other potential cost-cutting initiatives such as reducing central office positions at $1 million, closing at least two schools at $1.6 million, outsourcing the 152 custodians at $900,000, reducing supplements and extended day contracts at $400,000, increasing mileage on school bus pick-up points (1 mile or more compared to the current half-mile pick-up points), combining middle and high school routes and conserving fuel at $400,000, and saving $700,000 for every calendar day schools are closed. Pertaining to bus drivers, it was noted that Fayette has approximately 200 bus drivers, the state pays for only 92.

So what is the problem with school system finances that will require historic cuts? The answer is two-fold.

The first involves the budget cuts made over the past few years. While millions were cut, those sums were not sufficient to keep up with plummeting revenues.

The second answer involves falling revenues that come from two sources. One source involves the large decreases in student enrollment in the past few years that resulted in a decrease of millions of state dollars coming to Fayette County. The other pertains to additional millions of dollars lost due to falling local property values brought on by the recession.

But there will be yet another financial problem down the road in 2014-2015. If enrollment continues to decrease, as projected, and unless property values begin to climb, the school board in the near-term will be faced with even more cuts than those envisioned for the coming school year.