Riley declares historic proration

Published 7:33 am Wednesday, December 17, 2008

By By Kerry Whipple Bean
The third-graders in Rebecca Jordan’s class at W.S. Neal Elementary were calling out answers to multiplication problems Tuesday as quickly as they appeared on a Smart Board in their classroom.
With a touch of the screen, Jordan zips through their answers as a clock ticks down the time, making their math lesson a game.
The Smart Board — a sort of electronic whiteboard and projector — is part of the latest technology to help give teachers and students interactive tools for education.
It’s also the sort of “extra” purchase that likely won’t be possible under new education cuts from the state — and more expected cuts in the next fiscal year.
Gov. Bob Riley declared on Monday a 12.5 percent proration — the highest rate since 1960 — in the state’s Education Trust Fund. A dip into a rainy day fund for schools will offset that, making proration about 9 percent for the current fiscal year.
That means Escambia County Schools will have to do without about $2 million and Brewton City Schools will lose about $675,000. Another dip into the rainy day fund, which Riley said Monday was likely, would lessen the blow to somewhere between 5 and 6 percent proration.
Both Smith and Escambia County Schools Superintendent Billy Hines said their school systems are covered for the current fiscal year, despite the cuts. That’s thanks to the foresight of saving money in their own rainy day reserve funds.
Hines said school officials are still waiting for word as to what will get cut. While proration is affecting all school systems across the board, certain funds — such as capital improvements — are usually exempt from cuts, he said.
But what can be cut remains limited. For most school systems, Smith said, 85 percent of their budget is in salaries and benefits. Those systems without a reserve fund are going to have a hard time making payroll.
Brewton City Schools prepared for the cuts by not replacing some staff and faculty at the end of the last school year.
And K-12 schools aren’t the only ones affected. Community colleges and universities will also see proration this year.
State agencies will also be cut by about 10 percent, but Riley opted not to declare proration in the state’s general fund because he said he wanted some flexibility in making cuts, which will amount to about $200 million.
Riley said the national economic slowdown forced his hand on the cuts. Alabama law requires the state to operate a balanced budget.
Riley said the state would monitor the economic conditions and “take further action to control spending to achieve a balanced budget.”
While current reserves will help this year, that uncertainty about the future is what worries local superintendents.
Schools in Alabama started out the school year operating with less than they had last year. The current cuts come on top of that.
But Hines said the school system is committed to quality education.

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