The school board opened the FY14 budget work with a clear message from the finance director that further cuts are coming to already depleted budgets.
In their first budget workshop of the year, school finance director Amy Burgess told all five members of the board and many principals and administrators that the board has two options: either raise revenue with a property tax increase which won’t be
very popular or cut expenses which also won’t be very popular, but “we have to do something.”
Burgess went through many of the financial challenges the schools face this year with their $39 million budget. Most of her updates boded poorly for the cash strapped system, involving either further cuts from the state or increased costs – particularly with health insurance.
Near the end of the meeting board member Byron Long asked, “Can’t you provide just one bit of positive news?” Burgess replied that the schools had saved considerably with their phones and internet service.
A constant theme throughout the meeting was that no decisions have been made, but tough choices are coming. While the system has had to make cuts before and has decreased personnel by 108 positions since 2008, Burgess said this year will be tougher and the dollar amounts bigger.
First year board member Peggy Andrews, who brings a wealth of experience from years working in the schools, was the most vocal of the board members asking questions and making comments throughout the workshop. Andrews commented that the funding for schools is more complicated than people realize, particularly regarding restrictions on state monies. “We can’t just take the money and do good,” she said. “We have to take the money and do as they say.”
Burgess stressed several times throughout the meeting that she was only presenting options and numbers; no decisions have been made.
Among some of the points highlighted by Burgess:
• Salaries and benefits are the largest expenditure for the board. In Pickens, salaries and benefits consumed 87 percent of the FY13 general fund budget for the 651 school employees.
The student population has dropped here by about 200 students over the past several years. Currently the system has 4,321 students enrolled. Burgess said the decrease in students could allow the board to cut back on teaching and related support positions. She encouraged the board to look at it as a whole before looking at particular positions. She later said, “when 87 percent of the budget is in it [personnel costs], you have to look at it.”
Also with the lower student population some classes are below the attendance where the state will fund them. She said the board is required to offer many classes, but could eliminate non-required classes. She said the board can choose to continue offering these classes, but they need to look at the costs in local tax dollars.
• The state continues to cut funds coming to Pickens County. Pickens has suffered $17 million in “austerity cuts” from FY01 thru FY13 and they expect about $3 million in austerity cuts for FY14.
• The board is expected to look at reducing the portion of health insurance they cover for teachers and staff. For the “classified” staff (those without teaching degrees) the total cost of insurance increases will be more than a half million dollars next year, this hike follows a similar half million increase this year. Insurance costs for the classified employees are expected to go up again the following year, making three solid years of increases.
• The board will hold one budget workshop each month until the budget is adopted some time in the summer. The next workshop will be March 21st at 6 p.m. in the board meeting room on D.B. Carroll Street.