Suwannee Democrat

Jasper News

March 29, 2012

HamCo school board grapples with budget issues

Jasper — A joint workshop with the Hamilton County school board and the superintendent's advisory council was held on March 22 to discuss the budget, the five-year work plan, and the district's facilities' needs. Superintendent of Schools Martha Butler stated at the beginning of the meeting that she had invited the city of Jasper, the county commissioners, and the towns of White Springs and Jennings in order to get input from them, however there didn't seem to be anyone in attendance from those entities, other than a few folks from Jennings.

Director of Business Services Bonnie Penner had three issues to be addressed, in order for the board to begin to prepare next year’s budget and the five-year work plan, which is required by the Florida Department of Education (DOE).  

The first issue is that for the 2016-17 school year the district is estimated to have about 1,252 students, which equates to $1,252.77 FTE (Full-time Equivalent) for capital outlay purposes. This number is significantly less than previous years, Penner said.

Her question to the group was, “Where will these students be placed considering we have 2,619 available student stations at the five schools in operation?”

The second issue is that they are budgeted to begin the 2012-13 school year with a deficit of approximately $675,000.

“What changes do we implement to eliminate this deficit?” was her second question.

Lastly, district employees are going to be four steps behind when they start the 2012-13 school year.

“Do we implement cost savings significant enough to provide for increases?” was her third question.

One suggestion to help alleviate the deficit was to levy a tax increase for an additional millage.

“If we wanted to levy a 1 mil tax increase, that would generate $715,000 approximately,” said Penner.

Additionally, some big changes to balance the budget would be to consider operating either one or two elementary schools instead of three, and/or integrating Greenwood students into the other schools. Greenwood currently has a total of 27 students. Nine of them are from Hamilton County and the rest are from Suwannee and Madison counties.

To operate two elementary schools, Penner said, there would be a savings of a little more than half a million dollars. To operate one elementary school it would save 1.2 million dollars, and to integrate Greenwood students into the other schools it would only save about $150,000.

Superintendent Martha Butler reminded everyone that the district does not qualify for funds to build a new school and that there will not be any special facility funds for several years. To operate one elementary school, she stated, won't work because they don't have a facility large enough to accommodate all the students.

The group then reviewed a profit/loss statement for the district for 2011-12. With the exception of North Hamilton Elementary with a profit of about $388,000, all of the other schools are operating at a loss, both before and after adding in administrative costs. The total estimated net loss for the district is in excess of $1.7 million.

Tom Moffses who was sitting at the roundtable questioned Penner asking if it was possible the profit/loss statement he was looking at was from last year.

“I remember the numbers and Central was not $200,000 at a loss, even before the administrative costs,” he said.

“Well, now, this is for 2011-12,” Penner told him. “I think what I did was early on during the budget year, but I’ll look and see.”

Penner explained that she just recently was able to pull the transportation costs per school and add them to the P/L statement.

“I think the sheet that I gave out earlier did not take into consideration that with the FEFP (Florida Education Finance Program) you earn money for transportation, but then it’s also there to take care of the additional costs that we know are not funded for transportation.”

Moffses stated that it looked odd to see two drastically different statements for the school year.

Penner said they are just trying to move forward to decide what changes to make in order to balance the budget, as well as to try to incorporate employee raises into the budget.

School board member Sammy McCoy asked to see a breakdown of salaries for non-instructional employees and Penner agreed to get it to everyone before the next meeting. He also requested information on how much it actually costs to operate the administrative complex.

Penner explained that many of the district's costs get spread out over all the schools, like transportation, property insurance, worker’s comp and certain telecommunications.

A long discussion about how FTE is adversely affected by virtual schools and dual enrollment did not yield much positive news. If a student who is utilizing virtual school programs does not pass, the district does not receive funding for that student.

Butler brought up the Local Government Financial Emergencies bill amendment that will take effect July 1, 2012. She specifically noted one section that reads, “the bill provides that the failure of the members of the governing body of a local government entity or the failure of the members of a district school board to resolve a state of financial emergency constitutes malfeasance, misfeasance and neglect of duty for purposes of Article IV, Section 7 of the State Constitution.”

“So we certainly want to do what we need to do, so that we're not in a predicament that causes any of us any grief,” said Butler.

She went on to say they are dealing with many issues as far as balancing the budget, including the charter school proposal at SHE.

School board member Damon Deas said, “It’s hard to make any kind of decision on that because, let’s suppose we do close South. There’s going to be a push to open up that charter school and they’re more than likely going to get it open. What kind of negative effect is that going to have on our budget if they do?”

Butler said it would take a year for them to open as a charter school and she wanted to make sure teachers knew what the advantages and disadvantages are.

“We have the right to take the year and I believe if it's a process that's designed to take a year then we certainly need to be cautious,” said Butler. “We have Polk County experts coming in on the 4th and Denise will be noticing that and y'all are invited.”

Butler said these experts will be speaking to the teachers at 3 p.m. on April 4 and then they will address the parents of SHE students at 6 p.m. to answer questions.

“My question is,” Deas said. “We’re sitting here showing a hundred and something thousand dollar savings if we close that school, but then if a charter school opens up, that savings is not going to be there. Not that much.”

“Not that much,” Butler agreed.

Penner said that if South went charter many changes would need to be made because the district would not be overseeing or funding as many things. Rex Mitchell interjected that the district would be getting five percent of the FTE for South if it goes charter.

After more questions and discussion on various items, including the possibility of changing out the school buses to utilize natural gas, which is much cheaper than regular gas, as well as swapping out the propane tanks at the high school to natural gas, it was announced there would be another town hall workshop meeting on April 23 at 6 p.m. at the old high school auditorium (courthouse annex).

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