BoE member Presberg pushes to spend reserves for pay raises

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Fayette County Board of Education member Leonard Presberg. File photo.
Fayette County Board of Education member Leonard Presberg. File photo.

Where will money come from next year? “That depends on what happens next year,” Presberg said in response.

[See related letter to the editor.]

It will soon be time for the Fayette County Board of Education to adopt the FY 2017 budget. Currently placed at $191.5 million the school board on May 2 held a discussion on aspects of the budget that begins July 1.

School board members at the May 2 meeting discussed the idea of having the FY 2017 budget at $191.5 million and include the addition of nearly 64 new classroom positions. The current budget is $184 million.

The school board will soon consider the inclusion of another dozen positions for next school year. Most of those would not be classroom positions. The total cost of those positions would be an additional $746,347.

Assistant Superintendent for Finance Tom Gray said the preliminary budget includes a 3 percent cost-of-living increase along with salary step increases for school system employees, with Superintendent Dr. Joseph Barrow saying that half the projected $8 million budget increase over the current year would come from cost-of-living increases.

A 1.5 percent increase in the tax digest would have the county’s total worth at $4.05 billion while a 7.5 percent growth would have the tax digest at $4.3 billion, Gray said.

At the current 20-mill property tax level, a 1.5 percent tax digest increase would generate approximately $81.07 million local dollars while a 7.5 percent increase would generate $85.86 million. Gray said projected collections are expected to be at 98 percent.

While budget talks will continue until adopted in late June, Chairman Marion Key during the discussion said she is “looking at a mill reduction” to accompany the budget. As is customary, the school board will adopt the millage rate in late summer once tax digest figures are in.

Concerning the 10 percent reserve account established a few years ago, board member Leonard Presberg, citing the conservative nature of the budget compiled by Gray and his staff, said he did not think the school board needs to maintain that degree of reserves, adding that there are numerous areas in the school system where additional funds could be appropriately used.

“If you spend reserves on salaries what are you going to do next year?” asked board member Barry Marchman.

“That depends on what happens next year,” Presberg said in response.

Superintendent Jody Barrow during the discussion cited the need to maintain a strong fund balance.

In his remarks, board member Dan Colwell said “as recently as three years ago we were making cuts and freezing (job positions).”

The need for the historic budget cuts in prior years was essentially echoed in comments to the school board in January 2013 by Ga. Dept. of Education Deputy Superintendent for Business and Finance Scott Austensen, a Fayette County resident with children in Fayette schools. Austensen at the time said resulting decreases in state dollars had combined with falling property tax revenues to generate millions less in school system revenue in recent years.

Each 250 students translates into approximately $1 million in state funding. Fayette’s enrollment today may have reached a plateau, but enrollment is down more than 2,000 students compared to the high of more than 22,300 last decade.

Without sufficient cuts, Austensen said at the time that Fayette’s fund balance would go negative in the 2013-2014 school year.

“It’s illegal to operate in a deficit unless you have a remediation plan,” Austensen said of the precarious position Fayette would find itself in if necessary cuts were not made to the budget.

It was in June 2013, under interim Superintendent Dan Colwell, now a board member, that the board adopted a $162 million budget for FY 2014 that included the elimination of 300 positions and the closure of four schools.

A position held by Colwell at the time was that the new budget should also come with a fund balance sufficient to build up a reserve and offset emergencies. As adopted, the budget included a July 1, 2014 fund balance totaling $12 million.

Barrow on May 2 noted that many of the eliminated staff positions have now been added back to the school system’s rolls.

Prior to FY 2014, former board member Bob Todd and current Chairman Marion Key had long advocated for a reserve account to be established, though the two did not have the votes to enact such a measure.