6/17/12 Schools project smaller fund balance after 2011-12 spending

Schools project smaller fund balance after 2011-12 spending
System, county government still at odds over funding
By Mike Wilder The Times-News 6/17/12     
Reprinted with permission.

   The Alamance-Burlington School System’s fund balance has been a key part of the discussion between the system and county during a budget season where talk of funding cuts has caused concerns.

   The school system started the current fiscal year with reserves of $21 million. It projects $12 million will remain at the end of the year. In some cases, the fund balance was used to cover operating costs. In others, it was used for one-time expenses.

   On Superintendent Lillie Cox’s recommendation, the Alamance-Burlington Board of Education approved plans to spend a significant amount of the fund balance on technology for schools, going beyond her proposal to spend $4 million instead of $3 million.

   Cox said this week she has no regrets about spending money on a one-time investment that will benefit students.

   Information Cox presented during a school board work session last week said the fund balance has also been used during the current fiscal year to cover gaps in state funding, help pay teacher supplements, for maintenance of facilities and for training for teachers and other employees.

   Cox said training has been important with the state beginning new procedures for instruction and assessment of students in 2012-13.

   The reduction in the fund balance as a result of spending during 2011-12 was noted by school board members during the work session discussion.

   “We may appear to have a huge fund balance right now, or a comfortable one,” said board member Kristen Moffitt, but the amount of money in it will continue to shrink. She and others pointed out the board has already penciled in plans to use the fund balance to cover operating costs in upcoming fiscal years.

   School board member Tony Rose suggested that hammering out a fund balance policy between the school system and county could pave the way for smoother budget discussions. The leadership of school system and county had tentative discussions while the system was led by interim superintendent Del Burns about a policy that would regulate how much the system should have in its balance and what should happen if the amount grew beyond a certain amount.

   “Let’s come to some kind of agreement,” he suggested.    School board chairwoman Jackie Cole said she feels the system needs money in reserve because she isn’t convinced the county as a whole has a commitment to education that would ensure resources would otherwise be available in an emergency. Board member Mary Erwin said she doesn’t believe education is the priority it should be.

   Rose said those concerns could be a starting point in talking with the county about a policy.

   Cox said aging facilities could require having money on hand in a hurry. Replacing 25-year-old heating and cooling systems at schools such as Turrentine Middle School, Grove Park Elementary and Eastlawn Elementary will ultimately cost between $1 million and $1.5 million at each school, she said.

   Board members have differing opinions on committing more money from the fund balance to avoid potential cuts in academics, the arts and athletics. Patsy Simpson said she would favor using the fund balance for that purpose.

   Others, such as Cole, sound more reluctant. With revenues still down locally and statewide, Cole said, she’s not optimistic either the local or state government will be providing additional money any time soon. That would mean using the fund balance would only push cuts to future years.

   That factored into the budget discussion among school board members last year.

   “We were hoping that the economy was going to get better, and it has, to a certain extent,” board member Steve Van Pelt said. But that hasn’t translated into restored funding for schools.