Newton schools finds extra savings

COVINGTON -- Although the Newton County School System has struggled with a tight budget over the past several years, it may have a little room to breath soon.

NCSS Deputy Superintendent Dennis Carpenter reported to the Newton County Board of Education on Tuesday during its monthly work session that the system is expecting to carry over $4.4 million more than expected from last school year's budget, which ended on June 30.

Originally, the system had planned to begin this school year's budget cycle with nearly $11.4 million in reserves. After final calculations were made, the reserve fund balance now shows that it will be $15,737,101.

Carpenter said the main factor was a savings of $2,147,297 from the system's maintenance and operations department.

He said the department implemented several strategies to ensure this savings in the department: privatizing lawn care services, critiquing all work orders to determine if they can be handled internally or be outsourced, receiving three quotes for all outsourced work not under contract, using nutrition funds and capital funds to cover any allowed maintenance costs so as to not pull from the general fund budget and requiring high schools to check out service trucks instead of keeping one at each school.

Additionally, NCSS negotiated with the federal government to pay $134,687 instead of $798,070, which was originally required to cover the Special Education Maintenance Effort since NCSS schools failed to meet certain academic benchmarks necessary to receive federal funding through American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for special education services.

Other departments also reported a savings other than what was budgeted for last school year.

Carpenter said he hopes that next year's maintenance funds can be budgeted at about $2 million less since the department has seen a savings near that over the past couple of years.

"We feel good about our performance this year," he said.

Now the school board is trying to decide if the extra funds should be kept in reserves or if some of the cuts made earlier this year can be reinstated.

Major cuts for the school year include six furlough days, insurance increases, 47 less teacher positions at the high school level being reduced due to a change in high school scheduling, more than 40 bus drivers and dozens of other transportation staff reduced due to a change in bell schedules and bus routes and about 50 staff cut at Sharp Learning Center that was dissolved and outsourced with the development of an Ombudsman alternative school program.

"I think it's important to look at what we can do for our employees," said school board Chair Almond Turner. "We need to look at some options to see if we can do something for our employees -- that's all employees."

NCSS Superintendent Gary Mathews cautioned the school board about spending the extra funds.

He said that although the fund balance is higher than expected this year and more than $14 million should carry over to next school year, the future years are uncertain.

According to projections, he said at the end of the 2012-13 school year, the fund balance could be $7.7 million, which is only 13 days of operating expenses, if revenues and expenditures remain the same as this year. By the next school year, only $1.3 million is expected to be left over.

Mathews said that the system also could see more expenditures due to the Newton College & Career Academy opening in January. Carpenter added that insurance costs also could increase for employees.

"Whatever the board's pleasure, we're pleased to accommodate that," Mathews said. "What the board decides to do, I want you to have long-term projections."

Carpenter said it would cost about $475,000 to fund one furlough day and $2.2 million to fund step increases for employees, which they haven't received in three years.

"And whatever you do, it carries over from year to year," he said, explaining that although it would cost a certain amount this year, it also would cost the same each year following, thus taking away from future year's projections.

The school board decided to meet for a special called meeting at 9 a.m. Oct. 10 in the board room at the BOE building, which is located 2109 Newton Drive NE in Covington. The members plan to discuss some budget options.

"This will probably be the most important decision we'll make all year," said board member Eddie Johnson.

They did not set a time frame for making any decisions, but they are scheduled to meet for a work session at 7 p.m. Oct. 11 and a monthly meeting on Oct. 15.

"I don't think we need to move fast on this," Turner said.

They also hope to hear from the public before making any decisions, board member Jeff Meadors said.