By Josh Akeman
New interim school superintendent Dan Colwell has barely been on the job a week, and thus far it's been wall to wall meetings as he's taken the lead of a school system with major financial concerns. Colwell says a Wednesday meeting with state officials made it clear that the Georgia Department of Education is monitoring the situation and "prodding us to get it under control."
The state's primary concern is simple: Fayette County has too much space for too few students.
"We built schools in past years when we needed them, but now we have about 2,000 fewer students than we did a number of years ago. The fact is we have an abundance of classroom spaces we really don't need, and the state is expecting us to address that situation," Colwell said.
While the problems for the school system seem simple enough, the solutions could be painful for many people. School closures seem to be an inevitable part of the plan, but alone can't make up the budget shortfalls facing the system. That prompts another concern from the state: Fayette County has a "very low" fund balance, says Colwell, "obviously no system should ever go into deficit spending and we're not going to do that, but our fund balance is at such a low level that it has gotten the state's attention."
Colwell says the county is “on target to maintain the fund balance at year's end, but we need to make sure not to dip into it to make budget next year. Our budget will have to be such as to build toward a better fund balance."
So with such a need for cost cutting, the school system has to look to personnel, which makes up more than 90% of the budget. Colwell says Fayette County has, in the interest of maintaining a low teacher-pupil ratio, employed more teachers than are allotted through state funding.
"According to our cost cutting report, we have about 150 teaching positions that are locally funded and that we get no state money for. It's always been Fayette's strategy that we want a low teacher-pupil ratio and that has meant we've hired more teachers than allotted by the state. That's been a great strategy and part of the phenomenal performance of the system. With the budget where it is, I don't know if we can continue with that," Colwell says.
Colwell says the ideal method for trimming teaching staff is to allow it to dwindle through attrition, and certain steps have already been taken in that regard. In particular, Colwell says teachers and administrators that leave during the year are no longer immediately replaced by full time employees.
Instead, long-term substitutes are hired to finish the year. Those temporary hires don't receive benefits and are generally hired at a lower rate than a full time teacher. Colwell says the temporary teachers that have been brought in are licensed and don't represent a decrease in quality of instruction.
Those sorts of savings through attrition have bolstered the projected fund balance, which is expected to be at $5.8 million by the end of the fiscal year in June. That's up from only $800,000 to start the year, when the fund was depleted in order to balance the 2012-13 budget. Colwell says it's "very important" to maintain a healthy fund balance and intends use as little as possible of that nearly $6 million to address the remaining $14-15 million needed to balance the 2013-14 budget. He says the state prefers that school systems shoot for a fund balance equivalent to 10% of its budget, which would mean about $15 or $16 million for Fayette County. He says ideally the system will try to achieve that in the next several years, but added that few school systems in this economy are at the 10% level.
A budget workshop is scheduled for Jan. 18 at 5 p.m. The board will need to submit a tentative 2013-14 budget by May and a finalized version by the end of June.