BOE: Outlook on budget grim

COVINGTON -- The Newton County Board of Education held its first two public budget hearings this week with little presence from the public.

In front of only Newton County School System administrators and a political candidate, NCSS Superintendent Steven Whatley presented an updated 2010-11 school year budget Tuesday night before the school board's monthly work session and again Wednesday morning -- after learning of a reduction in local revenues and still hearing no word from Gov. Sonny Perdue's office regarding state funding.

The school board is expecting to start the year with a beginning fund balance of $5,869,074, down from nearly $10 million that the board started with this past school year. It expects to receive $135,957,721 in state and local revenues next school year -- $44,854,157 from local taxes, earnings on investments and other local sources and $91,103,564 from state earnings and grants, according to estimates.

"Although the governor passed the (state) budget (Tuesday), we still haven't gotten our state allocation," Whatley said. "We had to go ahead and develop a budget."

After expending $136,353,080 in instruction, student services, staff support, administration, maintenance and operations, transportation and other services, NCSS expects to have an ending fund balance of $5,473,715 for the 2010-11 school year. But after receiving updated figures from the local tax office, Whatley said that will be slashed by about $375,000, as the tax digest dropped 17 percent, not the 10 to 14 percent that was originally anticipated.

Due to the drop, the rollback millage rate would be 20.41 mills; however, the board legally is only allowed to increase its millage rate from the current 18.21 to 20 mills, Whatley said.

"This is the first increase in the millage rate since fiscal year 2006," Whatley said. NCSS will bring in about 7 percent less in local revenue this year than last year even with a rate increase, according to the budget.

But even with an increased millage rate from NCSS, Whatley said homeowners still will pay less taxes this year than they did last year because of the drop in the digest.

Because of the increased millage rate, the board was able to keep 80 full-time paraprofessionals that it originally planned to eliminate, but they will only work for six hours per day for 178 days, which is the length of a student calendar.

"We felt it was important for that support," Whatley said.

Officials also decided to keep the three high school graduation coaches and only reduce the NCSS contribution to the 403b retirement plan from 3 percent to 1 percent, instead of to .5 percent; it was cut from 5 to 3 percent at the beginning of this school year. Whatley said personnel and benefits make up 87 percent of the budget.

Also, as previously decided, a portion of the middle school athletics budget also will be available, but it must be supplemented by a parent fee that has yet to be determined, as it will be based on student participation.

Still, more than 80 certified and classified positions were cut overall in NCSS -- 61 teaching positions, 16 special education positions and other central office staff and those in support services at NCSS. The school board also cut the teacher calendar by six days and the student calendar by two days and reduced health insurance contributions.

"We had to make some hard decisions," Whatley said. "We've been taking steps to try to bring in needed revenues and critical expenditures to the extent we can. ... This budget is tight."

He said the budget development process -- which started in December and included several administrator and board meetings, including board members reviewing the budget line item by line item -- was a delicate balancing act to preserve resources for students, watch out for employees and stay responsible to the taxpayers of Newton County.

The school board plans to approve the final budget and adopt a millage rate for the 2010-11 school year at its next meeting, which is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m., Tuesday, in the board room of the Newton County BOE building at 2109 Newton Drive, N.E., in Covington. The board will hold its last public hearing to hear public comments regarding the budget at 6 p.m. prior to the meeting.