Budgeting has proven particularly challenging in recent years, said Herb Garrett, the executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association.
The "instability" of state funding, with its years of funding cuts, have turned the school budgeting process into an "exercise in good luck," but he offered a couple of steps to help avoid shortfalls in these "volatile" financial times.
First, make "very, very conservative estimates" of personnel needs, Mr. Garrett said. School systems must undergo a balancing act to employ enough teachers to avoid eleventh-hour hiring, but also not to have too many teachers. Personnel accounts for most of a school system's budget.
Second, maintain an "adequate" reserve fund of about 10 percent in case of shortfalls and other emergencies that might arise, he said.
Unfortunately, many school systems have been tapping their reserves because the state hasn't fully funded education in the past five years, Mr. Garrett said.
"Even when they cut budgets, they're doling out pay raises," he said of state officials.
Federal funding adds to the challenge of establishing a sound budget.
"Accounting for funding that comes for a separate governing entity, i.e., the federal government, can be tricky," Eric A. Houck, the assistant professor of educational administration and policy in the University of Georgia Department of Lifelong Education, Administration and Policy, wrote in an e-mail.
Although he couldn't comment specifically on Richmond County, Dr. Houck said it's generally good advice to base assumptions on what happened over the course of the previous years. For instance, look to see how much funding was cut or grew in a five-year period.
That's not a perfect formula, but the estimate should be close, he said.
School systems can also carry over money from one year to the next in case assumptions aren't met, Dr. Houck said.
Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
BACKGROUND: In October, the Richmond County Board of Education blindly approved 10 percent cuts to school budgets and most departmental budgets. The cuts were needed because 60 positions were included in the budget without money to fund them. Superintendent Dana Bedden cited a "flawed" budget process that bases decisions on old enrollment figures and federal funding allocations, poor handling of overtime and the school board restoring $350,000 in cuts it had made in June to balance the budget. WHAT'S NEXT: The cuts affect the current fiscal year, which runs through the end of June. When officials begin working on the budget for the new fiscal year, more cuts could be on the way because of Richmond County's large drop in enrollment.