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No good news from school board

By By John Dilmore Jr. Special to the Advance
There was no good news reported at the Escambia County School Board's specially called budget hearing Thursday evening, only varying degrees of bad news. All of the news had potentially dire consequences for the future scope and quality of educational programs offered by the county schools.
The board voted unanimously to approve an operating budget sliced almost to the bone by state-mandated funding cuts. The vote followed Chief School Financial Officer Julie Madden's explanation of the district's current financial situation.
In short, after suffering sweeping cuts, the board will make it through this year, fiscal year 2004, by drawing upon its reserves. It is projected that the district will make it to the end of fiscal year '04 with $216,515 left in the bank.
But that $216,515 will be absolutely all the district has remaining, Madden said.
"There will be no CDs, there will be no money market," Madden said. "That will be all that we have left."
Board members are hoping that voters will come to the rescue on Dec. 9. when they will have the chance to vote for a 10 mill ad valorem tax increase to to help prop up the school district with local monies. But even if that tax increase passes, it will not make for an immediate fix.
The district would still have to borrow money to begin next year – using the projected tax revenues as collateral – and then pay back that line of credit as money from the tax increase begins coming in. And that's the best case scenario.
If the vote on a tax increase were to fail, district officials are at a loss as to how they will get started next year.
"If the 10 mill (tax increase) does not pass," Madden said, "there is no way we will be able to start next fiscal year without borrowing funds. At that point, if we don't have some increased revenue, some additional revenue, I don't know what we will borrow against.
"I don't know what the bank would let us use as collateral if we can't show some revenue coming in, and local is our only chance."
That's because things are expected to get worse at the state level before they get any better. Superintendent Melvin 'Buck'Powell, obviously shaken following Madden's summation, said that next year would likely be the worst yet in terms of budget cuts coming down from the state.
"We've been cut close to $5 million (over the past four years) by the end of this year," Powell said. "But next year will be the worst of the previous four years. I just hope the people of Escambia County realize that."
Powell and the board stayed after the hearing and conducted a work session, the primary focus of which was development of a brochure promoting the 10 mill increase's necessity.
This year's operating budget contains a total of $23,312,661 in revenue. Of that, $19,546,317 comes from state sources, $160,222 comes from federal sources and $3,606,122 comes from local sources.
Total expenditures come in at $24,597,315. That's a difference of more than $1 million, which is being made up for from the district's reserve funds. After all is said and done, the district is left with only the $216,515 in reserves Madden mentioned during her presentation last Thursday.
And that figure could have been considerably lower, Madden said. $154,747 of the district's reserves were saved when the W.T. Neal Trust wrote a check for that amount to fully fund the Turtle Point Science Center in Flomaton.
There is much missing from this year's budget, due to a lack of money from the state. The district lost all funding for technology, library enhancement and professional development for teachers. Funding for textbooks, orginally projected at $274,751, has been reduced to $34,356. The district's transportation operating budget, which pays for drivers, fuel and benefits relating to transportation, was cut by $184,465.
Oddly, one area actually received an increase, though a relatively small one. Funding for teacher supplies rose from $525 per teacher unit to $584 per teacher unit.