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Bulloch schools to draw on reserve funds
Fund balance will cover projected $3M shortfall in fiscal 2014
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Bulloch County school employees will see fewer furlough days next year, but the district could spend about $3 million more than it brings in.

A proposed budget for fiscal 2014 received tentative approval Thursday from the Bulloch County Board of Education and will be presented for a final vote next week.

The plan proposes reducing the number of furlough days for teachers and other staff to two, compared to five in the current fiscal year.

Also, the budget would require about $3.54 million to be pulled from the district's fund balance to offset an anticipated discrepancy in revenue and expenses.

Superintendent Charles Wilson said the additional work days for personnel are necessary because teachers need to be brought up to speed on changes being implemented by the Georgia Department of Education - such as the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, new teacher and administration evaluation systems, and Georgia's new accountability measure for schools, known as the College and Career Readiness Performance Index.

"We are building a strong accountability model, and to do that we have to provide time for training, and an investment in our people. Those furlough days are being incorporated back in for professional development purposes," Wilson said. "With the continuous improvement culture that we are trying to build, and with all the changes to requirements coming down from the state, our people need to be well-prepared."

The professional development days will cost the district $690,000 in additional salary.

It is one of several influxes in costs being dealt with by budget makers, according to Troy Brown, the school system's chief financial officer.

Other salary-related increases include raises for eligible noncertified staff, such as bus drivers, maintenance workers and food service employees, as well as certified staff, for about $440,000, and $200,000 worth of salaries that were formerly paid from federal funds. Those federal funds have been eliminated through budget cuts known as "sequestration," he said.

The district also will take the second of a planned three-year hit from the state. Georgia is cutting $2.4 million in funding for health insurance for noncertified staff, but it's phasing that amount in over three years. In the current fiscal year, the state cut $800,000 from Bulloch County Schools; approximately $900,000 more will be cut in fiscal 2014.

Other additional costs include the salaries of seven new teachers, dollars tied to retirement plans (changes were made to the program by the state), and a hit in state equalization funding.

In total, the system has budgeted approximately $71.7 million in expenditures next year.

"We are continuously being handed either revenue cuts or more cost requirements from the state," Wilson said. "We have taken efforts over the past several years to cut somewhere between nine and 12 million dollars in sustainable costs from our budgets. There are a few more things that we can do, but we need to be very careful that they don't conflict with achieving our goals."

As a result of new costs, the district's fiscal 2014 budget projects a $3.54 million shortfall - revenues are projected to be $68.16 million.

Needed money will come from the system's general fund balance, which will leave $17.35 million in reserve.

"It is not alarming to us that we have to eat into our fund balance, based on what our current balance is," Brown said. "But that trend is alarming."

According to projections, the balance would reach zero by fiscal 2018 if the district cannot find a way to balance revenues and expenses.

"We cannot go to zero. A lot of systems around the state have," Brown said. "I don't want Bulloch County to be one of those. I want us to be proactive and evaluate what our situation is, and how we need to act, instead of getting a few years down the road and having to react like some boards have had to do."

Wilson believes some costs may be cut by exploring alternative health insurance options for employees, and by making additional tweaks to staffing and salaries.
However, the school system most likely will need to generate more dollars to balance future budgets, according to Brown.

In the meeting Thursday, Brown said to the board: "We have really cut departmental budgets to the bone in recent years. There is very, very little we can change in terms of costs. The only other area to focus on is the revenue side. The only thing that we have much control of is taxes."

Increasing millage rates is "something we may have to look at in future years," he said.

Jeff Harrison may be reached at (912) 489-9454.


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