​County Finance Committee Rejects School System Budget

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

At June 21 meeting, the Franklin County Finance Committee again rejected the proposed school system budget for the 2018–19 school year because of the request for $829,388 in new revenue. The largest portion of the new revenue was earmarked for a 2 percent raise for all certified and non-certified employees.
Finance committee member David Eldridge proposed the teachers’ raises come from the fund balance, the reserve maintained by the school system to meet unexpected expenses. The fund balance is projected to be $2.8 million at the close of the 2018–19 school year.
Citing past years where the draw on the fund balance was $1.7 million to $2 million less than expected, Eldridge said he had “confidence” that would be the situation going forward.
“The budget is loaded with contingency expenses,” Eldridge argued. He pointed to $200,000 for “unplanned openings” and a projected $100,000 increase in social security costs, insisting the budgeting process “assumes the worst case scenario.”
Director of Schools Stanley Bean countered it was “not wise financial planning” to take money for teacher raises from the fund balance. In preparing the budget, County Deputy Finance Director Cindy Latham advised the school board not to draw the fund balance below $2.5 million, the amount needed to make payroll.
Basic Education Program (BEP) funding from the state would not fund a 2 percent teacher raise, Bean stressed.
“We’re mandated to put money in certain areas to get us up to state minimums,” Bean said. “The BEP money goes there first to plug holes. What’s left is nowhere near enough for a 2 percent teacher raise.”
County Mayor Richard Stewart, the finance committee chair, acknowledged teacher wages fell behind surrounding counties.
County Commissioner Dave Van Buskirk concurred. “We need to fix the low salaries paid to 10 and 20 year teachers.”
“That’s what we’re doing with some of the BEP money,” Bean said, “to plug holes.”
“I want to see the teachers get raises,” said committee member Eddie Clark, who also chairs the county commission. “We’re in a year with no growth. We don’t have the $829,000 readily available. Can you help us out this year?”
Stewart suggested if the school board would “work with” the finance committee on the budget issue, getting approval for the new middle school design plan, cost $1.8 million, “will be easier.”
Stewart asked the opinion of the two commissioners attending who did not serve on the finance committee. Van Buskirk said he strongly favored a raise for teachers and “there should be a way to carve that out. I couldn’t vote for this budget.” Commissioner Angie Fuller concurred. “Teachers deserve a raise more than anybody, but I can go along with a new school better than this.”
“We need to go back to the drawing board,” said Franklin County School Board Chair CleiJo Walker, following the decision. The board already cut $463,000 from the budget when the Finance Committee rejected the original draft.
“There’s danger in taking a recurring expense like teacher raises from the fund balance,” insisted board member Sara Liechty. “This decision seemed to reflect misunderstanding and lack of information.”
Pointing to examples, Liechty said the school system was mandated to fund Response to Intervention (RTI) and Special Education to assist at risk children. The school system receives no state funding for RTI, and Special Education is only partially funded.
Without the $829,388 in new revenue, the total projected revenue for 2018-2019 is $43.6 million, which comes from county taxes and state funds. Projected expenses are $46.7 million, which includes salaries, wages, insurance, utilities, taxes, supplies, and maintenance. This will require a $3.1 million draw on the fund balance, reducing the fund balance to $2 million. The portion for teachers’ and employees’ raises is $600,000. To annually take cost of living raises from the fund balance would deplete it in just a few years.