Hamilton County: Stopgap Band-Aid

Hamilton County: Stopgap Band-Aid

February 22nd, 2009 by Kelli Gauthier in News

Staff Photo by Angela Lewis<br> Staff members of 21st Century Academy placed a message on the school sign Wednesday morning after the Hamilton County School Board mentioned the school as one of two schools that might be closed because of budget cuts.

The first draft of the school system's plan to wipe out its $20 million projected shortfall delays necessary reductions and doesn't solve longer-term budget issues, the district's chief financial officer said.

Tommy Kranz said his initial budget, which includes closing two schools and eliminating 130 positions, defers millions of dollars in other expenses and leaves "no wiggle room" next year.

"We fully understand that what we're doing is an ongoing process and one that's very fluid," he said. "We also realize we're trying to fix a problem that didn't occur overnight. We've just put a Band-Aid on the issue."

That makes some people involved in the process wonder why.

"If you know what needs to be done, go ahead and take your medicine and do it," said Kurt Faires, a lawyer with Chambliss, Bahner and Stophel and a member of the school board's citizen panel charged with reviewing the budget. "I think we're lacking a sense of urgency."

School administrators began laying the groundwork for a tough budget year last November, when they briefed Board of Education members about plans for closing up to 11 of the county's underused schools. About 80 percent of county schools enroll too few students to cover costs of maintaining, heating, cooling and staffing. A Florida consultant's report showed that the average school uses only 75.25 percent of its square footage.

Operating small schools with few students costs the district about $18.5 million each year, Mr. Kranz said.

But the budget the school board's Finance Committee reviewed Tuesday did not contain some of the bold recommendations expected by the advisory panel and others. The budget proposed closing just two schools - Howard Middle School and 21st Century Academy - for a savings of about $1.1 million.

As a result, at least seven schools would be affected similarly next year, Mr. Kranz said, though he declined to name them.

"Those seven schools ... that will really be talked about in the next several (Finance Committee) meetings," he said.

But Unum Chief Financial Officer Bob Greving, who serves on the advisory panel, said if those schools already have been identified, action should be taken sooner.

"You don't just make a comment like that in an open meeting and not have more substance to it," he said. "So what are the seven schools and why can't we do something earlier than 2010?"

Some of the other expense reductions, such as for transportation or staff for new schools, are actually just deferrals, Mr. Greving said.

Of the $7.5 million in reduced expenses, $4.5 million is deferred, he said. "All we're doing is postponing the inevitable."

For example, students won't get new textbooks to match up with new statewide standards next year, but the system will have to buy them eventually.

Putting off needed spending easily could increase a projected $12 million deficit to at least $16 million in 2011, officials said, which makes some committee members wonder if anything has been accomplished.

"We'd be raiding reserves and deferring necessary expenses," said Mr. Faires, who argues that deferred maintenance costs push the shortfall to $40 million. "It's a very shortsighted approach."

Noticeably absent from the budget proposal were any concessions from the Hamilton County Education Association. Even though growing health care costs were the system's greatest increase in expenses this year, employees would not pay any more for their health insurance under Mr. Kranz's first proposal.

Budget draft

Hamilton County Schools administrators presented a budget to the Board of Education's finance committee on Tuesday. The draft plan outlined the following spending cuts:

* $7.5 million: Reduction in projected expenses (includes transportation, utilities, new textbooks, staff for new schools)

* $5.8 million: Reduction in instructional staff

* $2 million: Reduction to central office

* $945,000: Reduction in assistant principals

* $786,096: Savings from closing 21st Century Academy

* $327,790: Savings from closing Howard Middle

* $135,000: Savings from closing nonschool buildings

* $2 million: Increase in revenue

* $678,580: Remaining budget shortfall

Source: Hamilton County Department of Education

Advisory panel member Eddie Holmes said the administrators were unwilling to address the real issues with benefits.

"They weren't going to do it because they have to deal with the education association ... but once you take the benefits and salaries off the table, where else can you go to cut?" he said.

Mr. Kranz said he still is negotiating with the education association to see where more cuts can be made.

Election year complications

Schools Superintendent Jim Scales has said he recognizes that making substantial budget cuts - especially school closings - could mean political trouble for the board members who vote for them.

School officials have said part of the advisory panel's purpose was to provide some political cover for the board when it came to difficult budget choices.

However, the pressure to close well-loved community schools will not get any easier, especially next year, when all County Commission seats and five of the nine school board seats are up for election.

The April 1, 2010, deadline to qualify for a school board race will come about the time system administrators would be presenting their budget again, said school board member Jeffrey Wilson.

"It's rarely a good year to do any of that, but next year will have its own unique challenges," said Mr. Wilson, who plans to run again for his District 5 seat. "What you may find is that some of those decisions (to close schools) aren't made until after filing deadlines. They'll drag out any decisions during an election year."

County Commissioner Fred Skillern said politics should have nothing to do with school decisions.

"That shouldn't even be a consideration," said Mr. Skillern, who also plans to run again. "What does a political race have to do with the right thing with economics?"

But politics aside, somebody is going to have to step up and make some tough decisions, Mr. Holmes said.

"It's going to take a willingness to do it and a courage to do it, which is lacking," he said, "because it's hard."