County schools OK financially

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 19, 2010

“Planning for tomorrow, today” is the motto for members of the Covington County Board of Education as they work to fund local education in the wake of flat sales tax revenue collections and diminishing state funds.
Six months into the 2010-2011 fiscal year, the system’s chief financial officer Shauna Robertson said there have been no surprises when it came to proration or revenues.
“The things that we are doing now – we’re planning two years in advance,” Robertson said. “And that’s how you have to think of things. You have to be proactive. You have to think of the future.”
With federal stimulus money, school systems across the state were given access to funding for teacher salaries and covering operational costs. Those funds were primarily designed to fulfill three specific purposes within a two-year window. Some were set to go toward Title I programs, which are focused on helping schools that have a high rate of poor students. Another portion went toward special education programs associated with the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, and the remainder helped save teaching jobs through the state’s fiscal stabilization fund.
Reports show the county school system is set to receive a total of $2.3 million in stimulus funds – $639,000 in Title I, $830,000 in IDEA and $769,000 in fiscal stabilization.
Locally, school officials warned of the two-year time limit on spending stimulus monies, calling it a “band aid” for the much greater problem of proration. At the end of the 2010-2011 fiscal year, which begins in October, that stimulus money will be gone.
In September 2009, then-interim superintendent Terry Holley announced a plan to realign the system by closing Florala City Middle School, moving its students to Florala High School, and creating a Red Level Elementary School.
Holley, who was appointed as superintendent in March, said the move was done to not only alleviate costs in the short term, but to also benefit students in the future.
State funding for school systems is based on student enrollment numbers. During the last three years, the county system’s student numbers have fluctuated – ranging from 3,176 in 2007; 3,079 in 2008; 3,102 in 2009, and 3,059 in 2010.
Local revenues – also known as sales tax collections – have dropped dramatically. As of April, $4.92 million had been remitted to the system. Comparatively, the system received $4.97 million in the same time period in 2009; $5.26 million in 2008 and $5.29 million in 2007.
And as both state funding and local revenues decrease, so does the system’s ability to fund employees. Between 2007 and 2010, the total number of employees has fallen by 11, the bulk of which was the result of attrition.
“I can tell you that we’re operating right now on 20 percent less funding from the state than we got two years ago,” he said. “We know we have to prepare for next year (2011), and we’re worried for the following year (2012). We don’t know about the economy. When you look out there for funds, there’s no help for anyone next year.
“We know we can’t spend more than we make – that’s a given,” he said. “We have to tighten our budget and be creative where we can.”
Holley has implemented several “interesting” ways to create revenue and cut expenses.
In February, the system began using a “purchase card,” which through an agreement with Region’s Bank, the use of the card pays the school system a 1 percent “cash back” on its purchases.
The system is now being implemented when paying all of the system’s accounts payables.
Through grants and a recent bond measure, upgrades to the system’s infrastructure of buildings has been made possible; however, it is unknown what the next six months – “or the coming years” – might hold, Holley said.
One such measure could be increased class sizes, he said.
“Which would mean a bigger student to teacher ratio,” he said. “We’re not doing that now, but we did lose some units because of enrollment (numbers). Overall, for us, that meant three units. Through retirement and moving some people around, we’ve been able to accommodate that.
“The legislature has to find a way to fund education,” he said.
“We’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got, but all good things come to an end, and we have to be prepared for that,” he said, speaking of stimulus money. “And that’s what’s about to happen. I still say the economy is two to three years away from recovering. Of course, I’d like for it to happen today, but that’s unrealistic, but we’re here today to plan for tomorrow.”