Schools await word on proration

Published 8:39 pm Thursday, December 4, 2008

The uncertainty of the status of state funding has local education leaders wishing Gov. Bob Riley would declare proration – a status that would at least give them a better idea of how much money they will not be getting from the state.

In November, a shortfall in state revenue forced Alabama to be late again in sending state funds to school systems to make their monthly payroll; however, local school system officials said they’ll be able to manage the reduction in cash flow. Some of Alabama’s 131 school systems were required take out short-term loans to cover payroll until the full amount arrives from the state. None of Covington County’s three school systems had to take out such loans, however.

It is expected that this month’s funds will be late also, prompting another shortfall.

The need for proration, which is an across-the-board percentage cut in education funding, can be credited to the severe economic downturn. That downturn has directly led to the shortfalls in funding for school systems statewide.

It is too early to know about December’s payment, but it is shortfalls like this that has at least one school system “wishing the governor would declare proration.”

“We’ve gotten word that the state superintendent’s association has asked the governor to declare proration,” Covington County Schools superintendent Sharon Dye said, during Tuesday’s board of education meeting. “If we knew, it would allow (school systems) to make better financial decisions.”

Board member Jeff Bailey agreed with Dye.

“The longer the wait, the more it hurts,” Bailey said. “That money is prorated from the beginning (of the fiscal year). By law, we have to give our teachers access to their (supply) money. When proration is declared, that money will have to come out of our general fund instead of the state money.

“We’re not where we want to be, but we’re better off than we could be,” he said.

State Finance Director Jim Main said in a typical year, there is leftover education tax revenue to begin the new fiscal year budget; however, that wasn’t the case this year because tax collections fell short of spending in fiscal year 2008, which ended Sept. 30.

State officials had to spend every dime collected in taxes and empty a “rainy day” savings account to balance the books when the fiscal year ended in September, which caused state finance officials to send school systems only 75 percent of their normal amount of revenue at the end of October. When the state collected more tax revenue in November, the state sent the remaining 25 percent about one week into the month.

Main said that made November start out short. The end of the month will also be short of funds, he said, because the state was closed for several days for Thanksgiving, meaning businesses weren’t able to submit tax payments on those days.

Dye said the Covington County School System is in “better financial shape than most” and is currently able to sustain itself without the need to float a loan to cover operational costs.

“We’re fortunate with our system that we are in the financial shape to not have to do like other systems in the state and have to borrow money,” Dye said. “The way that things are looking overall I’d have to say we can expect a 4 to 5 percent reduction (in state funding) after proration is declared and the money from the Rainy Day Fund is used.”

Shauna Robertson, the system’s chief financial officer, said she expects the funding situation to carry over to the next fiscal year.

“I’d say that the next fiscal year is going to be pretty short too,” Robertson said. “And that makes it really difficult to plan and make accurate (revenue) projections. Right now, we’re fortunate in our system, but things can change quickly.

“Luckily, our reserve allowed us to make payroll prior to the Christmas break,” she said. “Other (systems) weren’t so lucky.”

Both the Opp and Andalusia city school systems were able to make payroll in November without borrowing any short-term funds.

“We are fortunate to have the cash to advance ourselves, but of course, this cannot go on for a long period of time because that has an impact,” said ACS Superintendent Dr. Beverly McAnulty. “We were told the governor will declare proration in December also. The sooner the better. That way we know what the rules are. The state will give us their planned cuts and then we have more of the year to spread out those cuts.”