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NCSS employees likely to get raises
BOE weighing proposed budget options
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The Newton County Board of Education (BOE) plans to give back to its teachers some of what it was forced to take away in recent years due to budget cuts. Board members just need to decide in what way.

Newton County school board members discussed the proposed budget Monday for next school year, which includes raising teachers’ salaries for the first time since 2008-09 and adding 12.5 positions.

The $163.4 million budget calls to curtail three areas of cuts to teachers and personnel and still end the 2014-2015 school year with more money than this year, according to the proposed budget presented by Peggy Bullard, Newton County School System (NCSS) business manager.

“We have to retain and attract good and qualified teachers,” board member Almond Turner said. “It is incumbent on us to do something. Doing nothing will put us in a position to keep losing them.”

If this version of the budget is approved in June, the BOE will begin the school year on July 1 with $18,838,219, which is 9.78 percent less than the beginning fund balance for the 2014 budget. A 3 percent increase in the local tax digest, at a millage rate of 20, and an increase in state revenues will result in the larger budget.

This preliminary budget presented will likely change some after board members review and discuss details more, Bullard said.

Even with the plan calling to increase spending, the ending fund balance is expected to be $19,260,467, staying above the recommended seven percent of expenditures.

Almost 87 percent of the proposed expenditures is budgeted for salaries and benefits, some $125 million. Bullard said this is on par with other years. Salaries and benefits for teachers are budgeted at $95.9 million.

Now board members must look over the proposed budget and determine in what form they think it is best to give back to the teachers and employees. The first, most conservative option, calls for a one percent salary schedule increase for all employees, a step increase – raises for climbing the pay ladder – for all eligible employees and cutting one furlough day for eligible employees.

Although all positions have experienced furlough days during the last five years, Bullard said, bus drivers and monitors and food service personnel are not affected by furlough day givebacks because they are not currently required to take any. They no longer have any since reinstating the full 180-day school year.

With budget cuts in past years, most NCSS employees were required to take six un-paid days off, according to NCSS Superintendent Samantha Fuhrey. In 2014, there were four furlough days. Approving this version of the budget will cut those days down to three and result in the $19 million ending fund balance.

According to this plan, Bullard projected an ending fund balance of $17.3 million in 2015-2016 and $13.9 million in 2016-2017. This accounts for added expenses due to likely increases in health insurance costs.

Bullard also presented an option demonstrating the other end of the spectrum. This budget, if approved, will add $950,000 to total a two percent salary schedule increase, $453,000 to give back two furlough days – leaving only two – and a step increase.

The ending fund balance for next year is expected to be $17.9 million under this version. Bullard projected the school board to end with $14.5 million in 2015-2016 and $9.7 million in 2016-2017.

Both options are budgeted to leave more than the recommended fund balance at the end of each year.
“The goal is to be able to reinstate the things that we took away from our employees,” Bullard said.

Abigail Coggin, board vice-chair, pointed to a survey available to all employees in November 2013 asking what they wanted back from the BOE, in order of priority. The top choices, according to Coggin and confirmed by Fuhrey at the meeting, were step increases, adding back one work day and having the school contribute more to employee 403b retirement plans and health insurance premiums.

However, Bullard pointed out that a salary increase was not on the survey list and assumed that would be the top preference if given the option. With a salary increase, Bullard said, as opposed to benefit contributions, teachers and employees can choose where to invest their money themselves.

BOE Chair Shakila Henderson-Baker voiced concerns about giving benefits and salary increases back to teachers and employees then having to take them away a year or two down the road, wanting to make sure whatever final option the board votes on is permanent.

Fuhrey and Bullard explained to board members that any combination of the two options is welcomed for discussion, as long as the expenditures do not exceed the second option. Any option will include a step increase. For example, the final budget could include a one percent salary schedule increase and two reinstated work days, or vice versa.

“I’m comfortable with chart B, but I’m still a little worried about the effects long-term,” Fuhrey said. “I think a combination gives the best scenario.”

Fuhrey said Bullard would not present either option without being confident it would work.

When compared to school systems state-wide, Newton County plans to spend more on instruction and transportation while spending less on maintenance and operations, administration, staff services and pupil services. Bullard said this is a continuing and expected pattern.

“We’re still putting money in classrooms,” Bullard said.

Bullard said estimated enrollment is at 19,653, and class sizes will remain about the same as this year.

Other expenditures in the proposed budget call for an additional 12.5 positions and funding for instructional computers and technology. In past years, SPLOST funds paid for computers and technology, but this area is being added back into the general fund.

Board members will vote to tentatively approve a budget during their next work session on Tuesday, May 13 before approving a final budget at the June 3 meeting. The final budget will take effect in July.