CONYERS -- Rockdale County Public Schools expects to receive more state funding this year, but the school system still anticipates a hefty deficit next school year if no cuts are made.
Lee Davis, chief financial officer for Rockdale County Public Schools, reported to the finance committee of the Rockdale County Board of Education during its first meeting of the year Thursday that according to an unofficial midterm adjustment, he expects RCPS to receive $1.6 million more in state funding.
The committee, which was appointed by school board Chair Jim McBrayer, includes Wales Barksdale, Mandy North, Sharon Pharr, Katrina Young and Brad Smith, who did not attend due to illness. McBrayer also attended the meeting.
Additionally, if the governor puts in a step increase in the budget for classified school staff, it could give RCPS about $1 million, plus benefits. Staff members would receive an increase if they are due a step increase and if they are not at the top of their wage scale, Davis said.
He said even with the increase in funding this school year, he still expects a budget deficit of about $13 million for next school year.
Davis said that he expects RCPS to earn $500,000 more in revenue from the state for Teacher Retirement System costs, but it will cost about $715,000 more to fund next school year. He also expects a $1.2 million increase in costs in insurance for classified personnel.
Additionally, the state began to calculate insurance differently, so now RCPS is paying 13 payments in one fiscal year, which costs about $850,000, Davis said.
He added that student growth also calls for about 30 more teachers, which will cost about $2 million.
Non-salary budget requests also are up about $1.7 million, which includes an increase for textbooks, he added.
Davis said he is planning for a 4 percent decrease in local funding for next school year, like this school year, which equates to about $2.1 million. An increase in property tax appeals also could affect school revenue, school officials said. This week, Davis plans to meet with Rockdale Tax Commissioner RJ Hadley to discuss possible outlooks.
Davis expects more details on the state budget this week, too.
So far, he doesn't expect an increase in austerity reductions in state funding. The state generally provides about 85 percent of those funds due the school system based on a formula.
"That's huge," Davis said. "There could have been an increase."
So far, he expects this year's ending fund balance to be $8.3 million, which is better than this school year when RCPS took $2.1 million from the fund balance to avoid adding more furlough days to the school year. In May, he should have a better estimate of how it will turn out.
"We're going to have to wait and see when we get closer," Davis said. "We still have a good bit of unknowns, but certain pieces of the puzzle are in place."
Federal cuts to Title 1 funding also could increase this year, school officials said.
The internal budget committee planned to meet Friday to discuss possible cuts. The committee is made up of two elementary school principals, Sherrod Willaford at C.J. Hicks Elementary School and Tammy Hightower at Flat Shoals Elementary School; one middle school principal, Andrea McMahan at Memorial Middle School; and one high school principal, Tonya Bloodworth at Salem High School; as well as the superintendent's cabinet members.
"It's going to be a difficult budget," Davis said. "We've made a lot of cuts over the last few years. Luckily, we've let go of very few people for non-performance issues."
Already, he plans to have to add three furlough days in the calendar next school year.
"I sincerely hope in May we can propose a budget with three days or less," Davis said. "I'd love for it to be zero, but I'd be shocked, but I'd love to be shocked."
Certain jobs also may remain unfilled and class sizes aren't expected to decrease, he said.
However, Davis said RCPS is in better shape than some other school districts. RCPS officials said they've heard of systems around the state where there are 33 elementary school students in each class and more than 40 students in other grades.
Additionally, RCPS Superintendent Richard Autry said some school districts have double-digit furlough days and are cutting into instructional time, and a lot don't have an ending fund balance to carry over to the next school year.
"As bleak as it is, we have made very good decisions on how to spend money and get the best impact academically," Autry said.
One of those decisions was the outsourcing of the custodial team. Most of the staff remained employed with RCPS and the school system expects to save money over the coming years and maybe even this year too, even though originally officials thought it might cost about $50,000 during the first year.
"Everyone's looking at any way possible to save money, and if you save money and don't impact instruction, you've done good," Davis said.
In May, a tentative budget will be presented to the school board that will include more details since the state legislative session will be over by then. By law, the board must approve a final budget by June 30.
Local digest figures aren't expected to be available until July or August, when a millage rate is expected to be passed by the board. Davis said he doesn't expect to propose an increased millage rate this year; it is currently at 24.50 mills and is capped at 30 mills by state law. He said the rate might even be decreased if local figures are better than currently projected.
"Everything we looked at so far is maintaining the same millage rate," Davis said.
Even though RCPS officials have a better idea for next school year, they may have some more surprises to come in years ahead.
"We know the health care reform act will impact some of these things, but we don't know the exact impact," Davis said. "We'll have to keep our finger on the pulse for the next two or three years. ... We've got to keep an open mind."
System officials also don't know how the new car tax changes will affect the system. Now, new car buyers pay a title fee, instead of an ad valorem tax. Davis said that theoretically, school systems are supposed to be guaranteed the same collections, but that might change later."When they tell us about increases, we can budget for it. We might not like it, but we can prepare for it," Davis said. "If we know about it, we can plan on it. If we don't, we can't."
School board member Katrina Young also is concerned that the state will continue to underfund education across the state, if state officials see that school systems have dealt with less funding over the last few years.
"It's my concern, if they see we can do with less, why would they give us more money?" she said.
The only saving grace might be that some school systems around the state aren't performing as well as they could with less money, even though RCPS has continued to meet state requirements, RCPS officials said.
"It's not in our nature to fail, no matter the circumstances," Autry said. "But I can't tell you there haven't been problems with teacher morale that increased pressures have caused. We'll continue to hold the highest standards, but it's not easy in that classroom right now."