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Monday, April 18, 2011

St. Johns County School District has cut 65 million since 07-08

From the St. Augustine Record


Since 2006 the St. Johns County School District has been putting money away for a rainy day.

Now it's pouring.

For the upcoming school year, county school officials are estimating they'll see about $20 million less revenue.

To help offset the loss, money will have to come out of the fund balance the district has been building up over the past several years in anticipation of this crisis.

"We should be taking somewhere about $11 million out of our rainy day fund in order to stay whole," Superintendent Joe Joyner said.

Staying whole means not having to cut programs, academics or teachers.

That St. Johns has an option makes the county different from many Florida districts that are struggling with what must go in order to keep schools running.

School authorities realize the recession, a drop in real estate values and less revenue from taxes make cuts inevitable.

But what worries Joyner and school officials throughout the state is that cuts to education will continue even after the economy recovers.

Determining revenue

Officials still don't know what the 2011-12 school budget will look like.

"We're probably two weeks away from knowing what the final state budget figures will be," said Conley Weiss, who heads up the district's finance department.

Those final figures are needed before districts are certain how much money they will have for the 2011-12 school year. Officials are also waiting to find out what the Florida Legislature does about cutting the number of core classes that must meet the classroom size amendment requirements. That will determine the number of teachers needed, especially important since personnel make up a large percentage of school costs.

So far, St. Johns County is looking at $20 million less revenue for 2010-11. That includes $11 million plus in federal job stimulus funds, $5 million in state funds and $4 million less in capital funds for building.

In the 2010 election, local voters turned down a quarter mill increase in taxes for school maintenance and construction requested by the school district. A quarter mill tax was in effect for several years, allowed by a vote of the school board, and the money was used for additions at several schools where student populations continue to grow.

In addition to less revenue, schools, like people, are facing rising costs.

"I expect there to be a substantial increase in the cost of diesel fuel," Weiss said. This school year, the district budgeted $3.50 per gallon. The district pays wholesale plus delivery costs, thus making it much cheaper than at the pump.

Part of the year they lucked out and paid less, but as the year has progressed, the price of diesel has increased. Weiss is expecting most of the money budgeted will be spent by the end of the school year.

He's budgeting $4 plus per gallon for next year. More students will also increase the cost. The estimate is 800 more students in 2011-2012.

The district's buses run about 3.8 million miles a year in order to comply with state requirements for transporting students. That averages out to 2,770 gallons of diesel a day.

Also going up are medical and textbook costs. Textbook purchases alone could increase $1 million for the coming school year. Purchase of books is on a rotating basis in order to keep them up-to-date as required by the state.

Making up the shortfall

To make up the $20 million drop in revenue, the district is using several strategies.

The Florida Legislature has told districts to use jobs money from the federal government to help offset the shortfall. Originally the feds had said to spend the money to create jobs and the district was doing that until they found out the state was leaning toward saving the money. The district has about $5 million from that source.

In addition, the Legislature has voted to have employees pay for their retirement contributions. Depending on the amount allocated, the district will save between $3 million and $5 million.

Add in increased costs such as fuel, and the district will need about $12 million more to cover costs. Some of the needed revenue may come from increases in student population. Each student generates a set amount of money. That amount for 2011-12 is expected to be down about $1,000 per student from what it was in 2007-08.

But the main means of making up the difference will be the district's fund balance, or rainy day fund, now at about $42 million.

The fund will be a go-to one for the next couple of years, officials say.

Joyner estimates there's probably enough money in the fund to help make up the difference through the 2014-15 school year.

"Our hope was to project that on through the end of the downturn in the economy," Joyner said.

State finance officials are predicting the downturn will end by 2014 and an economic turnaround will begin to be seen by 2015.

If that doesn't happen, the district will have run out of the rainy day fund that is protection from "dramatic layoffs," he said.

Handwriting on the wall

The fund is the result of years of savings that began when the district began to see the handwriting on the wall in terms of the economy.

"We started making ourselves smaller in the fall of 2006," Weiss said. "We've increased fund balances by controlling our costs."

In the last few years, the district has eliminated 300 positions, reduced energy consumption and stabilized the cost of medical insurance by opening clinics.

School budgets have been reduced by 25 percent, and departmental operations budgets (county offices) by 30 percent.

The number of youth resources officers was dropped from 21 to eight. No salary increases were given in 2007, 2008 or 2009.

Vendors were asked to drop their costs by 15 percent, and most complied.

Those cuts are being felt.

"A lot of our instructional support positions have been eliminated. ... That's put a stress on administrators, teachers, everyone," Joyner said. "It's put a strain on the district office and the schools."

The strain isn't going away. District officials and principals are beginning to develop each school's budget for next year.

No construction

When voters failed to approve a quarter mill increase, that basically ended school construction for now.

"We're just going to have to delay all our building projects. ... We will use what money we have for maintaining," Joyner said.

The district's school population keeps increasing at about 800 students each year.

"We're growing about the rate of a school a year. So it won't take long for that to build up," Joyner said.

To meet the need the district will have to put in more portables, something they're allowed to do with maintenance money.

Looking to the future

What concerns Joyner and school leaders throughout the state is what they see as a trend to cut education.

"Our concern is based on the way the funding decisions have been made (in the Legislature) and that they're going to continue to cut regardless of the direction of the economy," Joyner said.

Since 2007-08 the district has seen cuts that now add up to about $65 million, he said.

"That's a staggering amount of lost revenue," Joyner said.

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