By Heather Mullinix
Members of the Cumberland County Board of Education experienced a bit of sticker shock Saturday as they looked over a list of possible budget reductions for $2.1 million.
"We've never spent all of our budget," said Dan Schlafer, 9th District representative. "We usually have a healthy fund balance. Do you really think we'll need to cut $2.1 million from the budget?"
Bob Scarbrough, chief financial officer, explained the amount was based on the current budget, the projected ending fund balance and the required minimum fund balance reserve.
"We're spending our fund balance down to the minimum so we've asked for ideas for possible budget cuts," Scarbrough said. "This year, we're spending about $3 million out of the fund balance."
The projected ending fund balance is $2.4 million, with the school system required to keep $1.5 million in reserves. The figure for projected cuts does not take into account any new funds, such as increases in state Basic Education Program funds or an increase in local funding requirements, both of which have increased in recent years. The state will provide early estimates in January, though final funding numbers are sometimes not received until July each year.
Director of Schools Donald Andrews agreed it was unlikely the board would be faced with making such drastic cuts, which included the possibility of cutting art, music and Career and Technical Education classes at the elementary level, cutting elementary athletics, closing the Phoenix School, and contracting for maintenance, custodial and transportation services.
"I over do projections, just to protect us," Andrews said. "We put anything and everything on the table. I won't be offended if you say something shouldn't be on the table, but it's our responsibility to be sure we put it all out there."
Schlafer said, "You see a list like this published, there's going to be an awful lot of angst."
Susan Huneycutt, assistant director of human resources and administration, said, "This is the worst thing. It's a huge cut and it would take something pretty drastic. You want to think about the least drastic of the cuts you could make. There's no way we are going to close the Phoenix School. There's no way I would support cutting art and music. And we can't academically go back to a traditional school schedule [instead of block scheduling]."
But the answer to such a budget shortfall, if it should happen, could be to ask for an increase in funding.
Charles Tollett, 1st District representative, said, "We've received a lot compliments on being miserly, economical, in our operations. But at some point, we have to realize our business is not to save money but to invest it wisely. Fortunately, we have that opportunity in education. The future of this county is very closely tied with what we choose to do with the public education funds in this county.
"We may be close to a time when we need to move forward the issue that we need some more money," he added.
There are also possible budget savings, including the savings from not paying for the school resource officer program next year, at a cost of about $233,000. Other possible savings areas are implementing an energy savings program through Cinergistic, projected at about $175,000 the first year; and the Tennessee Valley Authority and Volunteer Energy program to reduce energy demand at schools, with a possibility of saving $65,000 a year on electricity.
The Cinergistic energy savings program works with Cinergistic to look for ways to modify behavior to save energy without adding new equipment. Over ten years, the company believes it can save the school system a total of $6.1 million, though net savings would be $4.4 million.
The company would hire an energy specialist, funded through the monthly fee paid to the company from energy savings, a fee of $21,600 each month, for five years. After the five years, the school system would keep all of the energy savings, though it would also take on the cost of the energy specialist.
Those projected savings are on top of savings projected by TRANE, which has a guaranteed savings energy project in place in Cumberland County Schools that included centralized control of HVAC systems, new lighting and new windows in some schools. Cinergistic guarantees the savings.
Other looming decisions for the board include development of a differentiated pay scale for teachers. Beginning next year, the state will require each school system to develop a plan that does not provide across-the-board pay increases based solely on years of experience or advanced educational degrees. Instead, local boards of education can choose to make those pay increases based on additional roles or responsibilities, attracting teachers to hard-to-staff subjects or schools or based on student performance.
Schalfer said, "I would hope we would only consider additional pay for additional roles and responsibilities."
There will also be changes coming with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, especially when some employees work for the school system solely to obtain access to the health care benefits offered. Those employees could find suitable coverage, at cheaper cost, on the federal insurance exchange.
Individuals who already have health coverage through an employer plan may qualify to purchase insurance on the exchange if the employee cost share is more than 9.5 percent of take home income for the employee portion only.
"Some employees work just for the benefits," Scarbrough said. "They may decide they don't need to work for the benefits any more."
Huneycutt added another area of concern is substitute teachers and tracking hours worked to keep them below 30 hours a week — above which benefits may need to be offered.
"We're looking at a software program to track how much they work," she said.
School system employees meet with representatives of various benefit programs starting next week, Huneycutt explained, as the system enters its open enrollment period.
"We're trying to have our people prepared when they meet with the reps," she said, adding information on benefits was included in all paychecks at the end of September.