Leader Blues

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

TOP STORY>> District sees $3.5M drop for school year

IN SHORT: Miscalculated savings from cutting paid holidays and decline in state aid leave the Pulaski County Special School District short of expectations.

By John Hofheimer
Leader staff writer

Instead of the $11.5 million carryover the Pulaski County Special School District labored to have at the end of the approaching school year, interim Superintendent Robert Clowers now projects only an $8 million fund balance, he told members of the Jacksonville Rotary Club Monday.

The board and administration are attempting to stem the financial hemorrhaging that has increasingly drained district coffers over the past few years, because the district has been dipping into savings to pay its bills. Without a change, it would have been about $5 million in the red by the end of the 2005-2006 school year. As a result, the state Education Department in April designated the district as being in fiscal distress.

The possible consequences of financial distress include annexation with another district, or the possibility that the state could name its own superintendent and dissolve the board.

Led by then-Superintendent Donald Henderson, the board in April made dramatic cuts in spending aimed at reversing the trend and making a plan to rehabilitate its financial circumstances and appease the Education Department.

At that meeting, the board lopped $11.7 million from the proposed 2005-2006 budget of $143 million.

Of that, the board expected to save about $4 million by eliminating all paid holidays from all employees, but John Archetko, the district’s chief financial officer, has reworked the numbers to discover the savings would be closer to $2 million, Clowers said.

In addition, state aid is expected to be about $4 million less than projected earlier, Clowers said, but property tax revenues could be $1.5 million to $2 million greater than a year ago, offsetting some of the shortfall in state aid.

Two weeks ago, Clowers had said he hoped to restore some of the budget cuts, but those hopes were extinguished when the projected $11.7 million fund balance turned out to be closer to $8 million, he said.

“I was hoping we could bring back some holidays,” he said.

The district hand-delivered its plan to get off fiscal distress in April, but Clowers said Monday that the district would submit a revised plan, reflecting the new financial information, within about one week.

“We’re tweaking it,” he said.

The board saved $3.3 million by freezing teacher pay-step increases for experience and continuing education, although the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers is trying to get some or all of that reinstated in its current negotiations with the district.

Among other cuts slated for next year are 11 assistant principal positions, the paid holidays and $500,000 in textbook acquisitions.

The board had considered closing Homer Adkins Elementary School to save about $430,000 a year. Clowers said Monday that at least for the next school year, it would remain open as an elementary school.

“Is the union being cooperative?” asked one man.

“I’ll answer that,” said Bishop James Bolden III, Jacksonville’s representative on the school board. “Anytime they ask for money and we’re broke, that’s not cooperative,” he said, then called on state Rep. Will Bond for rebuttal.

“That’s what the union’s supposed to do,” said Bond. “It’s for the board and the superintendent to say no.”

In recent years, the district has spent millions more each year than it receives, depleting its savings to cover the difference. It even spends $10 million a year originally designated to retire school construction bonds and another $14 million dollars in desegregation money from the state.

Archetko has projected ending fund balance for the current fiscal year is $4.9 million, down from about $20 million three years ago according to one board member.

Without carrying the fund balance over and without making cuts, the year-end fund balance next year is projected to be $5.3 million in the red.

Clowers said that Archetko, the interim chief financial officer, had agreed to stay on until the budget process is completed, perhaps another four months.

Clowers himself has not applied for the vacant superintendent job, but said he’d stay on if asked by the board. The application deadline had passed when Clowers was appointed interim chief.

He is fully certified as a school superintendent, he said.