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Proposed school budgets for 2013-14 set at $95.4 million

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By Reece Murphy

Lancaster County School Board members got their first look at the district’s proposed 2013-14 budgets during their meeting Tuesday night, May 21.

The proposed financial plans for the upcoming fiscal year include an $80.5 million general fund budget and a $14.9 million debt services budget, and calls for a slight increase in total millage for county taxpayers.

After a relatively flush financial situation for the last two years, this year’s general fund reflects a $3.3 million shortfall in projected total revenue, Lancaster County School District Chief Financial Officer Tony Walker said, and as of now, a $1.5 million deficit.

“As you know, this (proposed) budget is based on the numbers we have now,” Walker said. “When we get to the bottom line, you’ll see that there’s a pretty good gap between where we are and where we need to be.

“But, of course, we’ll get that worked out between now and next month,” he said.

Playing into this year’s revenue shortfall, and of primary interest to the general public, is a $2,026 drop in the county’s mill value from $136,484 last year to $134,458 this year.

A result of an increase in the number of business properties converted to residential properties for development in the improving economy, the 1.48 percent slip in mill value amounts to a $283,640 loss of revenue for the school district, Walker said.

To make up the loss,  Walker said the district must increase general fund, or operating, millage by 5 mills from the current 140 mills to 145 mills. Operating millage is assessed only on business and personal property and not residential property.

Also, the district is cutting debt services millage, which is assessed on residential property, from the current 47 mills to 44 mills thanks to sound financial management of new Indian Land School costs and bond refinancing.

“So total school millage would only increase from 187 mills to 189 mills for fiscal year 2014,” Walker said. “I think we’ll be in pretty good shape.

“We’ll take a good look at it and if we can drop it another mill, we will,” he said.

Walker said much of the increase in expenditures for the general fund this year come from cuts in state funding to mandated programs for at-risk students and Title 1.

The cuts required  money to be shifted from special revenue, he said.

Still up in the air, Walker said, is the amount of the district’s “base student costs,” currently projected to be $2,101. The amount is an increase of $89 over last year’s amount, but far short of the approximately $2,700 per-student funding it had the state provided consistent funding over the years.

The state did not require districts to give teachers step-increases in this year as it did in 2012-13. The school district still plans to provide eligible educators with step-increases in the next budget cycle, plus one it owes them for service earned in the 2010-11 school year when the increases were frozen.

Other factors in the increases, Walker said, are rising operational costs such as utilities, property insurance, employee insurance and cleaning contracts.

“Overall, expenditures have increased by 6.2 percent, or $4,698,663 above the fiscal year 2013 final budget amount,” Walker told board members.

The good news, according to Walker, is that money allocated directly for individual schools is increasing, by an addition $112,211.

Walker said that with a month or more left until final consideration, a lot could change. Overall, Walker said this year’s general fund budget reflects a tight, but manageable financial situation for the district.

“I feel like we can do everything in the budget, we just gotta come together and figure out how we’re going to do it,” Walker said. “Overall, it’s going to pretty much be a year of little gain for the district. We’re basically going to be holding the ground we made up last year.”

School board chairman Bobby Parker said that he still holds out hope that the General Assembly will come through with more money for state schools.

But even if it doesn’t, Walker said he has faith in Walker’s conservative approach to the district’s fiscal matters and believes he’ll work to keep the tax pain as mild as possible.

“I don’t like to raise taxes, and it’s something we don’t do that much,” Walker said. “Tony is very conservative in financial matters, and I have all faith in him.

“If he says we’ve got to do it, we may question it, but we’ll likely do it.”

Capitol improvements

Also during Tuesday’s meeting, Lancaster County School District Director of Maintenance David Small gave board members an overview of the district’s five-year capital improvement schedule.

The school district currently has 28 facilities on 872 acres. The average age of the facilities is 40-plus years, Small said.

Components of the district’s facilities improvement plan include upgrading heating and cooling systems, energy management systems, lighting, ceilings, floors, roofs, fire alarms and security systems and improvements to electrical systems and parking lots, among others.

Under a state-mandated plan for districts to make schools and government buildings more energy efficient, the district is focusing on heating and cooling systems upgrades and energy management systems.

Heating and cooling systems and other renovations have been conducted at several properties including Kershaw Elementary School and Andrew Jackson High School. The district is currently working on McDonald Green Elementary.

The district is set to begin both heating and cooling systems and energy management system upgrades at Andrew Jackson Middle School this year. Plans call for wrapping up the effort with upgrades at Lancaster High and Buford High schools during the 2017-18 school year.

Small said the work has been going well, especially considering some school districts are only recently getting started.

“I feel like we’re a step ahead of many other school districts,” Small said.

 

Contact reporter Reece Murphy at (803) 283-1151