The Newton County Board of Education is recommending significant cuts to programs and personnel in an attempt to make up a nearly $10 million deficit in its Fiscal Year 2011 budget, but many parents are wondering about rumors of a surplus of money in that exact amount.
At Tuesday’s highly contentious BOE meeting, participants spoke of a large surplus of money that the board could use instead of making large cuts, this information, according to one speaker, came from Sen. John Douglas (R-Social Circle) and The News has obtained an e-mail sent to a constituent in response to questions about cuts in state funding to the school system, which results in cuts being required on a local level.
"…[the school system] still sits on a $10 million reserve it refuses to use," reads the e-mail from Douglas. "All the time they point fingers at the state while our teacher salaries remain the highest in the Southeast and as far as I can tell, no reductions are planned in the high salaries of the top leadership of the Newton County School System or reductions in central office personnel. We can’t help a system that is reluctant to help itself."
But according to Superintendent Dr. Steve Whatley, there is no $10 million reserve.
"We have projected that a cut of at least $10 million in operation for next year’s budget is needed, just to have zero dollars in the bank and thus no ending fund reserve on June 30, 2011," said Whatley at the meeting.The projected ending fund balance — or reserve — is $5.5 million and even with that amount and the roughly $10 million in cuts that have been recommended, that would leave the NCSS with a balanced budget and no money in the bank. Generally, the NCSS has a 5-9 percent ending fund balance, which is needed not only to keep the school system from borrowing money but also for paying salaries, benefits and other expenses in the summer until tax collections come in.
They are also needed in order to maintain the system’s AA+ bonding rating and to help with unexpected mid-year cuts in state and local funds — much like what have been experienced this year.
"Answering questions posed to him by his constituents with ‘let them use their ending fund balance’ does not address the real questions," said Sherri Viniard, Director of Public Relations for the NCSS. "Why is the state not meeting its obligation to support public education by pursuing a tax policy which does not support the programs for which it has a legal responsibility — education being one of those?"
Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax
Many parents are also questioning why the NCSS is planning to build more schools when the financial situation is so dire. The simple answer is SPLOST.
The Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax is the one cent tax collected from sales tax in Newton County. In September 2007, Newton County voters voted to approve the SPLOST but that it could only be used on construction of new facilities, renovation of existing facilities, lease of buses, technology, reduction in debt service and other building-related expenses. Per state law the revenue collected from SPLOST can only be used for these things.
According to Viniard the system continues to build schools because the system continues to grow. The NCSS is required to have a five-year facilities plan in order to receive state money for new construction (about 40 percent of the construction cost) and the renovation of existing facilities.
The system was growing by around 1,400 students a year but has slowed down, though enrollment continues to increase. The student population has grown by about 300 this year and enrollment is expected to increase by approximately 400 next year just in the high schools.
"Only SPLOST and bond money for construction along with state funds can be used for school construction," said Viniard. "Building costs are very low now in comparison to past years. That is why we continued with the building program and the bid for the contract for elementary school number 15."