Schools face funding shortage in millions

Catawba County Schools (CCS) may have to dip into its savings fund in a big way next school year to deal with state cuts.

In a worst-case situation, the school system will have to take $4 million out of its fund balance to counteract state cuts for the 2012-13 school year and continue operating as it is, said CCS Superintendent Glenn Barger.

The budget announcement is based on worst-case-scenario projections from the state and could change as the state moves closer to approving its final budget.

According to its budget schedule, the CCS Board of Education will call for a public hearing Feb. 13 and is set to vote on a 2012-13 budget Feb. 27.

“It’s a challenging situation and at this point, we are waiting to see if there’s some relief in the picture,” said Joyce Spencer, the CCS school board chairwoman. “It’s going to be a challenge to meet the needs of our staff and students with the budget as it is now projected to be.”

Even if CCS moves $4 million from its savings and a “worst-case scenario” becomes reality, the school system may still be under water because of state reversions.
If the state sticks to plans to increase CCS’ school reversion rate — with no other increase in additional funding — the school system will still be about $1.5 million short, Barger said.

“If that happens, we’ll have to take a look at those state-funded allotments and reduce them,” he said.

The board will have to approve its budget before the state finalizes its plan, which is usually not approved until early summer. Barger said it is frustrating to wait on the state’s changes.

“It’s hard to make plans,” he said. “We’re putting together a contingency plan. Right now, we hope we don’t have to implement anything. To take another 1.5 million out of (the budget), though, it would be painful to our schools.”

Other factors, such as the possibility of an extended school calendar and salary raises, may also affect the system’s budget, Barger said.

As the economy has continued to struggle, the state has increased its cuts to schools during the past four years, and school systems like CCS have had to deal with deepening cuts.

“It’s very frustrating,” Spencer said. “The federal money that came for the Stimulus offset some of the issues we were facing, but unfortunately those are temporary fixes and only delay the process. It’s extremely frustrating.

We’ve been very fortunate we’ve had very supportive commissioners, though, and local funding to help offset some of the cuts with that support.”

Capital requests
CCS board members must also mull and prioritize capital project requests in the midst of budget talks.

Currently, the system has about 12 capital outlay requests that range from purchasing new activity buses to providing HVAC upgrades to school buildings, according to information provided by the school system.

In a list of the projects provided to board members this week, the school system outlined what it considered top-priority projects, which included:
n a boiler replacement at Arndt Middle School ($110,000).

• athletic facilities upgrades and bleacher replacement at Bandys, Bunker Hill, Fred T. Foard and St. Stephens high schools ($2 million).

• a gym floor replacement at St. Stephens High School ($120,000).

• purchasing two new activity buses for system-wide use ($162,214).

• a fire alarm replacement at St. Stephens High School and Maiden Middle School ($80,000).

Calendar approved
The CCS board also approved a 185-day “early-start” calendar for the 2012-13 school year, despite possible pending changes from the state.

Prior to the 2011-12 school year, the N.C. General Assembly approved an 185-day school calendar year that started Aug. 25, 2011 and will end June 10, 2012. The calendar requires five more days of student instruction than in past years.

Systems across the state requested relief from the extra days, and it’s still unclear if the state will keep the 185-day, “late-start” calendar or revert back to a 180-day calendar for the 2012-13 school year.

However, because of the average amount of days it misses for snow days each year, CCS is eligible for a “weather waiver,” which allows its students to start earlier in the year.

CCS board members approved a calendar this week that will start teachers Aug. 2, with their last day being May 29. Students will start Aug. 7, with the last day of classes being May 23.

CCS has also prepared a 180-day calendar if the state decides to revert to the old format, but Barger said the start and finish dates will not change.