Friday, September 27, 2013

TOP STORY >> School board passes record $74M budget

Leader staff writer

The Cabot School Board on Tuesday approved the 2013-14 budget of approximately $74 million, which is up by about $1.26 million from last year.

The budget includes $36.21 million for teacher salaries, $33.44 million for operating expenses — instructional/pupil support, general administration/principals, maintenance and operations, transportation — and $4.6 million for the district’s debt services.

Last school year, Cabot spent $37.32 million on salaries and $31.94 million on operating expenses.

Comptroller Tina Wiley, who is responsible for supervising the quality of accounting and financial reporting for the district, said the budget is higher because prices have increased and that is typical.

Superintendent Tony Thurman said, “Our district continues to be financially stable. This can be attributed to the strategic planning of our school board when dealing with finances.”

He added, “This budget places increased emphasis on technology integration more than ever before.”

Wiley said a big concern for the district is changes to health-insurance rates for teachers. According to state Rep. Doug House (R-North Little Rock), the self-funded health-insurance plan for public school teachers needs $54 million just to stay solvent this year and $110 million to sustain itself; and this is after lawmakers gave it $8 million. If the state doesn’t step in and do something, teachers will see their rates jump as much as $500 a month, starting in January.

In the 2013 regular session, the Legislature voted to raise the minimum contribution that districts must make for each school employee from $131 a month to $150 a month.
Cabot pays the $131 right now, but the district also offer life insurance, vision and long-term disability coverage as part of its benefits package.

About half the districts in Arkansas contribute the minimum $131 and the others contribute more. The $150 minimum contribution starts Jan. 1, 2014.

The state government subsidizes teacher health insurance with about $50 million a year in funding. That amount has stayed the same for several years, even though the number of teachers and dependents has risen. Therefore, it doesn’t go as far as it used to in alleviating health-insurance costs for individuals.

When the Legislature meets for the fiscal session in February of 2014, there will be a push to increase state funding to defray more of the costs of health insurance paid by school employees, if it is not dealt with before that.

Wiley explained that it would be difficult to budget for the district’s increased contribution per employee until more decisions are made.

Major projects that have impacted the budget, she continued, are the $26 million, 212,000-plus-square-foot Freshman Academy for ninth graders that is set to open for the start of the 2014-15 school year and the $500,000 Ward Central Elementary School cafeteria expansion.

Thurman added, “There will be challenges to be considered in the future as legislators determine the formula to be used for programs targeted for at risk students and continued decreases in federal funding allotments for programs offered in public schools.”

He is referring to the $1.9 million Cabot receives for students who qualify for free and reduced lunches. Thurman said recently that the district was threatened with a $1.1 million cut to that.

But, he wrote in an e-mail sent to The Leader earlier this month, “I can tell you that there is not a change so far. There are several associations working together to develop a proposal but it is still a work in progress.”

Thurman explained, “(Gov. Mike Beebe) and the Legislature seeks to ensure that the funds are being used in an efficient manner. There is a cliff method used to determine the funding. Basically, there are cliffs in the percentage of free and reduced students in a district and the higher the percentage, the higher the amount of funds. Rather than cliffs, a new funding model would be implemented so that there is a smoothing effect from lowest to highest rather than cliffs at certain percentages.”

The funds are used to provide additional resources for at-risk learners, he added.

Of the district’s projected revenues in this year’s budget, 66 percent is state foundation funding, 33 percent is local funding and 1 percent is other state aid — the same as last year. Of the projected expenditures, 79 percent — 2 percent less than last year — is salaries and benefits.

Debt payment makes up 6 percent, which is up 1 percent from last year. Utilities and services are 5 percent, an increase of 1 percent. Equipment is 1 percent, which is down from 2 percent last year.

Wiley said the most notable shift was in salaries and benefits because the district is using Kelly Educational Staffing to hire substitute teachers. Cabot pays for that service and the company handles salaries. So money that would have been set aside in the salaries fund for substitutes was transferred to the services fund.

Also, supplies went up 1 percent because the district has set a standardized supply fee of $20, Wiley continued. The schools asked parents for a supply fee before, but the amount varied from campus to campus. Now the $20 parents pay provides students with their school supplies. Cabot covered the increase in that cost, Wiley explained.