Friday, June 17, 2011

Florence 1 budget stalls, Spartanburg 3 passes

What's wrong with Florence District 1?

The school board met last night and discussed its proposed budget for next year but apparently couldn't get past discussing it, according to the Florence Morning News. It seems that in past years, the school board heard budget concerns and requests from a parade of principals before getting down to drafting the document, and this year that didn't happen. So two board members blocked any further action on the plan presented by their interim superintendent, Dr. Allie Brooks.

Board members Alexis Pipkins and Pat Gibson-Hye Moore, who said they did not receive detailed information on items being cut throughout the district, blocked that second reading.

Pipkins and Moore said cuts to budgets for non-revenue producing sports, district landscaping, permanent substitutes, matters of attrition and other items were not presented in detail to board members as had been done in the past.

“Now, we only know what the administration tells us,” Pipkins said.

Before the motion to accept the budget as presented from board member Glenn Odom failed to receive a second, interim superintendent Dr. Allie Brooks addressed the concerns voiced by Moore and Pipkins, saying the budget was on the board agenda seven times before Thursday night’s scheduled second reading and that concerns about cuts or other issues should have been raised then.

Sounds like what we have here is a failure to communicate. Hopefully, sufficient communication will take place by next Tuesday night's meeting that some progress can be made. If not, the board may miss the June 30 deadline for adopting a new budget, in which case last year's budget will roll over into the next year, says the district's chief financial officer.

For a picture-perfect ending to a budget-writing process, Florence 1 and the General Assembly itself might take a note from Spartanburg 3, whose board and superintendent prepared and considered three different budget models before selecting the most conservative one at last night's meeting. Why three different models? Because the legislature hadn't yet decided whether to fund public education at mid-twentieth-century levels, middle-late-twentieth century levels, or late-twentieth century levels.

Optimism led the Spartanburg 3 leadership to imagine lawmakers might have adopted a budget by yesterday, in which case they could make decisions based on solid information. Reality -- and the legislature's various incapacities -- guided them to adopt the most conservative of the three models, just in case the legislature failed them.

Which, ultimately, it did, proving them wise.

In any case, Superintendent Jim Ray and his assistant superintendent for finance and operations, Greg Mack, presented budget proposals designed to restore some features that had to be cut in past years, thanks to the legislature's failure to provide twenty-first century levels of school funding.

After debating three different bottom line totals — one for each of three funding levels being discussed by state legislators — trustees approved a nearly $23 million general fund budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year. The total is a 1.5 percent increase over the current $22.6 million general fund budget.

The budget assumes a base student cost of $1,788 from the state level and was the lowest figure considered by the board. Base student cost is part of a weighted formula that funds districts for each student, depending on grade level and need.

District 3 Superintendent Jim Ray told the board that he expects base student cost to pass at a higher level, but administrators advised the board to act conservatively until a state budget is inked.

The board unanimously voted to pass the budget with a proviso that gives district administration authority to adjust the bottom line, should the base student cost rise.

Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations Greg Mack said that if a higher funding level is approved, a few capital maintenance items will be moved out of “capital projects” into the general fund.

“This is what I would call a ‘restorative’ budget, in that we have been able to restore a couple of items we used to balance the budget this and last fiscal years,” Mack said.

One highlight of the adopted budget is the absence of furlough days. Another is a step increase for district employees. Retirees returning to work in the classroom won't yet see restoration of the 15 percent salary cut they suffered last year, but aside from that, there's a significant reason running through this budget plan that many of South Carolina's school districts would benefit from consulting Jim Ray and Greg Mack before drafting their local budgets:

The district will save about $90,000 by cutting the equivalent of 2.2 full-time positions next year. The cuts are part of $220,000 that will be saved in personnel by hiring teachers with fewer years of experience to replace retirees and resignees.

Mack said that all personnel reductions were decided based on an annual analysis of class size and came only through attrition — retirement or voluntary separations.

Only two positions were cut, and reductions in staff came only through retirements or vacancies.

What does Spartanburg 3 know that so many other school districts don't? Or, is the better question: What parts of Spartanburg 3's philosophy would also serve well the schoolchildren, educators and parents living elsewhere in South Carolina?

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