Originally created 05/26/06

School reserve fund shrinks



The Richmond County school system's financial reserves are dwindling to the point that Controller Gene Spires admits he's not comfortable.

On Thursday, the school board continued scrutinizing next fiscal year's proposed budget, which has more than $20 million in additional expenses from the current year. The budget draws about $3 million from the board's reserves, cutting the remaining reserve fund to a projected $11 million.

That's considerably less than where Mr. Spires would like to see the reserves. They should be at least a month's worth of operating funds, which would be about $20.6 million, he said.

The proposed budget also calls for taxing property owners at the maximum allowed by state law - 20.196 mills, as opposed to the current tax of 18.811 mills.

Higher taxes and lower reserves leave little wiggle room for any expenses that pop up.

"You just wouldn't be able to do it," Mr. Spires said. "It's against the law to go negative."

During the meeting, Director of Maintenance Benton Starks recounted some of the unforeseen expenses this year, including termites that damaged the roof at Murphey Middle School, a roof that needed replacing at the Alternative Center and $250,000 to meet new code requirements, among other emergency expenditures.

The surge in fuel prices also put the budget in a pinch, forcing a larger allocation for fuel. The new budget sets aside $1,575,000 for fuel.

"When it goes up, we have no choice but to pay it," Mr. Spires told the board.

It would be the worst case scenario, but unless something "drastically changes" with the school system's reserve fund, positions would have to be cut, he said.

Another year of state funding cuts is adding to the system's woes. With more than $3.5 million cut for the coming fiscal year, that brings state funding cuts since fiscal year 2003 to about $28 million.

It might be time for the school system to make its own budget cuts, board member Ken Echols said before the meeting. School officials should look at areas where spending can be trimmed, he said.

One item board members discussed cutting is a graduation specialist - a counselor who helps improve graduation rates - at each of four high schools. Board members, however, held off on taking action on that motion.

"We need to put every penny we can into academics," Mr. Echols said.

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue put the position in his budget, with every high school in the state having a graduation specialist, but only funded the position at 48 percent of the actual cost, school officials said.

Talks on the proposal will continue at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or greg.gelpi@augustachronicle.com.

WHAT'S NEXT:

The Richmond County Board of Education will hold its next meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at 864 Broad St.