Beaufort News

Board projects $6.8M shortfall for 2011-12 school year

The Beaufort County School District is planning for a $6.8-million shortfall in the budget officials project they need to maintain the existing level of services in county schools during the 2011-12 school year.

Phyllis White, the district's operational services chief, presented early budget projections to the school board at its winter work session Friday and Saturday.

She predicts the budget could rise to $181 million as a result of increases in contracted services and utilities, as well as annual teacher salary and benefit increases that could be mandated by the state.

The current year's budget is $175 million, and the district expects revenues to be about $4 million short in that spending plan.

White said the district is not likely to take in enough revenue to fund the increases expected in next year's budget. State law caps the amount local governments can raise property taxes, and Beaufort County Council also must approve any tax increase the board requests.

That means the district must either make cuts or draw from its reserves to balance the budget.

White said depleting the reserve fund, which she expects will be about $27 million at the end of the current fiscal year, would jeopardize the district's bond rating and could lead to higher interest rates when the district borrows money.

Chairman Fred Washington Jr. said keeping the district's fund balance at about 15 percent of general-fund revenues is important.

"We will be hurt in the financial market if we go below 15 percent," he said.

White presented a list of about 20 cuts the board could consider. Closing a school -- Shell Point Elementary has been presented for consideration -- is only one among many options the board is considering, she said.

Positions for pre-kindergarten teachers, school resource officers and hall monitors also are on the list, as well as the bonuses paid to National Board certified teachers.

Other potential cuts include reducing school supply budgets and the stipends paid for athletics, as well as reducing the number of district-level coordinators and instructional coaches.

Increasing class sizes by one student in kindergarten through high school is also on the list. That move could save more than $2 million by eliminating 35 teaching positions.

"There are no good choices," superintendent Valerie Truesdale said.

Truesdale asked the board to decide on cuts by March 1, before employee contracts are offered in April.

She said reductions in personnel are a near-certainty, given the size of the shortfall. More than 80 percent of the district's general-fund budget goes for salaries and benefits.

Truesdale said she hopes to eliminate positions without laying off people by finding other openings in the district for employees whose jobs are eliminated.

She said this likely will be possible because the district has a high turnover rate historically. It hires between 150 and 250 people each year.

Washington asked each board member to discuss budget challenges for the coming year with school improvement councils and other organizations at the schools in the areas they represent. He said community input is key before decisions are made. He asked board members to set a date for those meetings by the end of the month.