County schools face large financial shortfall
Not yet known how much red ink
By Diana Matthews
At the Columbus County Schools’ April board meeting Monday evening, April 16, finance officer Terry Dudney reported that the schools are spending money faster than anticipated.
The system is headed toward being in the red by an unknown amount when the fiscal year ends, he said. For the 2017-2018 school year, the school system budgeted $5,573,226 in local funds. Dudney projected that the system will need $6,328,870 for the 2018-2019 year, a $1.2 million increase.
Budget areas in which the greatest discrepancies have occurred this year include teacher salaries and other employment costs and substitute teacher pay and associated costs.
The county expected to pay eight full-time teachers out of local funds in 2017-2018 but ended up paying 12 of them, a difference of $140,000 in all, or $35,000 per teacher in salary alone. For the coming year, Dudney recommended budgeting $525,000 for 15 locally-paid teachers’ salaries. Additional costs of employing those teachers include pay supplements, Social Security, retirement and hospitalization insurance.
Hospitalization insurance will rise from $5,986 per full-time employee to an estimated $6,104 in July, and it is likely to go up again during the school year, Dudney said.
The board enacted a policy meant to reduce teacher absences, but this year the system had paid out almost all of its budgeted substitute pay by the end of March.
Similar employment costs had occurred in custodial positions at the 18 schools, with six full-time positions plus substitutes paid out of local funds.
While costs rose in those areas, some of the state funding decreased in areas that the schools depend on to pay custodians and teacher assistants. Funds for “disadvantaged” and “low-wealth” counties have not kept pace with needs, said Dudney.
The shortage was particularly acute in the Exceptional Children area. “Our numbers (of EC students) exceed what we get money for,” he said. He predicted a shortfall of as much as $120,000 in that one budget area.
Other line items with significant overruns included postage, office supplies and transportation costs. Dudney said he had instructed his own department not to order more office supplies but to make do with what they have. “I’m telling everyone, ‘Don’t spend money,’” he said. “Nothing other than the bare necessities until the end of the year. That’s for maintenance costs, transportation costs, everything.
“This did not happen just in one year,” Dudney said. Costs have crept up, and system administrators have sometimes in the past used local money for budget areas in which state money was available.
Randy Coleman described the process that had occurred as “robbing Peter to pay Paul, and now both need to be paid.”
In the transportation category, “Not all of it is fuel,” Dudney said. He recommended budgeting $65,000 for fuel, tires, oil, and other vehicle replacement parts and supplies next year instead of the $55,000 in the current budget.
Board members expressed concern about the cost of transporting athletic teams and other student groups to out-of-county events. South Columbus High School, with its large band and its Vinegar Hill location, spends several thousand dollars more per year to bus students to away games than East Columbus or West Columbus high schools spend.
Coleman asked that the budget resolution be changed to increase the bus transportation line item from Dudney’s anticipated total of $65,000 to $130,000 to prevent individual schools from receiving bills at the end of the school year for overruns.
“The high schools are writing checks for $12,000 or $13,000 for travel. You’re not telling them how much it’s going to be until the end of the year and then you’re hitting them with a bill. We’ve got to do something to ease the pain on our schools.”
Board member Monte Herring observed wryly that, financially speaking, “It almost hinders our teams to make the playoffs. They’d be better off not to make it.”
With the doubled bus transportation line item, the budget recommendation passed unanimously. Board members Worley Edwards and Junior Dew asked Dudney to calculate roughly how much the shortfall would be by the year’s end and to craft a letter to the county commissioners explaining the many factors that had contributed to it.