Walker County Schools passes budget, shrinks fund balance

Walker County Schools passes budget, shrinks fund balance

July 17th, 2018 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

The Walker County Board of Education adopted a budget Monday night highlighted by more money coming from the state, more money going to teachers' pensions and a smaller fund balance, Superintendent Damon Raines said.

Overall, the fiscal year 2019 budget includes about $86.6 million in revenue, a 2 percent increase over last year. At the same time, the board budgeted to spend $92.4 million, a 2.8 percent bump. As of July 1, 2017, according to the budget, the district had a fund balance of $8.7 million

With this year's plan, the fund balance is down to $2.9 million, according to the budget.

On the funding side, the biggest change is the increase in state money after the Georgia Legislature voted this year to fully meet the requirements of the Quality Basic Education formula. QBE determines how much money districts are supposed to get based on how many students are in the system. It also looks at how many students fit certain categories. For example, a district is supposed to get more money for a kindergarten student than it does for a high school senior.

But before this year, the state had not fully funded QBE — based on the number of students the districts educate — since 2002. The result? For Walker County, that meant an extra $1 million in state funding.

On the spending side, though, the district will dedicate an extra $2 million to pensions. The Teacher Retirement System of Georgia's board voted last year to increase the employer contribution rate for the fund, from 16.81 percent to 20.9 percent. This rate is based off the amount of money the district pays teachers overall.

For Walker County Schools, the funding change means the district will contribute about $10.3 million to the pension fund this year. That is about $2 million more than last year.

Compared to last year, the district is also cutting operating expenses for teachers. That includes about $317,000 less for instructional allotments (a 39 percent cut) and $200,000 less for learning resources (a 45 percent cut).

Last week, Raines told the Times Free Press the cut in allotments is the result of changes in spending practices overall. Allotments come from the state through the QBE formula. In years past, he said, the district didn't spend all of the money it received for teaching, wanting to hold onto some of the revenue in case of future budget shortfalls.

Last year, though, district officials decided to spend the entire amount. They decided it would be better to spend it on the current year's students because those were the ones the state gave the district money for.

During Monday's hearing, Walker County Association of Educators President Jim Barrett asked how the district made the decision to withhold some of the allotment money in past years. Raines estimated that was not a large amount — maybe about $20,000 a year.

"There's not a procedure in place for making decisions not to spend," Raines said. "Some of that is a school-based decision."

Raines also explained the cuts to learning resources in similar terms. It wasn't so much that teachers were getting a less-than-usual amount this year, he said. Instead, they received an unusual amount last year, as the district bought the Reading Wonders program for third-through-fifth-grade students.

Director of Curriculum-Instruction and Professional Development Robin Samples said the district saved for several years to make that purchase. She said some teachers, even on the same grade level, were using different phonics programs. They wanted to put everybody on the same page.

The district brought in five different programs and asked teachers to try them. Most chose Reading Wonders, a McGraw-Hill program, because it offered the most different options for different levels of students, Samples said. It also included a non-fiction reading option, an area in which Walker County students particularly struggled on state tests.

"What was in our instructional budget would not even cover for one grade level," she said. "So we knew, in order to purchase something, that we would have to carry that money over and save that money."

Director of Financial Services Bridgette Watts did not return an email Tuesday asking how much money the district spent on Reading Wonders.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.