April 4, 2011
Johnson, BOE expecting more budget challenges
By ROY MITCHELL
CENTRE — Sometime in the next few weeks the Alabama Legislature will create and then enact its education budget for the 2011-12 school year. In the meantime, school systems across the state await, ready to absorb the blows rendered by the extended economic recession.
Since funding cuts have become the norm in recent years, school systems across Alabama have become used to educating their students with less of just about everything. Cherokee County, for example, has endured cuts over each of the last seven years, according to Superintendent of Schools Brian Johnson.
And considering all of the previous budget trimming, Johnson said he fears the next round of cuts might be near-devastating for some aspects of education in Cherokee County.
What makes this budget different than other recession education budgets? Simply, three revenue sources the state has tapped into in recent years have been depleted, according to Dist. 39 Rep. Richard Lindsey (D-Centre), the former chairman of the House Education Finance and Appropriations Committee.
“When economic times were on the upswing, the Legislature had saved money in a 'proration prevention' account,” Lindsey explained. “We also had money we could borrow from a rainy day account from the oil and gas fund, and we also had the president's stimulus fund.”
Now, Lindsey said, all those sources of financing are gone for one reason or another.
Lindsey estimated that without those sources of income, the state's education fund will be short as much as $1 billion, resulting in a decrease of around 20 percent over last year's budget.
In debating the 2011-2012 budget, Lindsey said the Legislature will consider budget proposals from State School Superintendent Joe Morton and Gov. Robert Bentley.
Bentley has recommended cuts to the transportation and OCE (Other Current Expenses) funds to help stave off some classroom cuts. On the local level, OCE money pays for expenses such as utilities, maintenance, and support services and personnel.
Lindsey said in the past, the Legislature has often used the governor's proposed budget as a starting point, then worked out its own set of details.
“The choices left are increasing the amount that employees pay into the retirement system, which was recommended by Gov. Bentley; cutting the number of divisors, which usually results in systems laying off teachers; or reducing the number of days in the school year,” he said.
After the Legislature decides on the budget and the total amount it will allocate to the school systems, local school boards will work hard to make do with whatever comes their way.
But the continued shortfall still has Johnson concerned.
Last year's state budget earmarked $21.6 million for Cherokee County Schools. Including federal monies, local taxes, and other revenues, the local board's total revenue tallied $37.6 million. And while that may sound like a hefty sum, Johnson said around 82 percent of that money was consumed by salaries and benefits for the Board's 494 employees.
“There are not any good answers,” Johnson said. “We could be in for a rough time next year. It could mean that we will have no choice but to make additional cuts if funding is not available.”
Though finances may look gloomy, Johnson praised the local system and its employees for stepping up to all previous funding challenges.
“The teachers, staff and administrators in Cherokee County are doing an outstanding job during these tough economic times,” Johnson said. “It seems we are doing more with less and operating efficiently. As the superintendent, that is all I can ask for.”