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Fairheart welcomes stimulus, but has concerns

by Larry S. Chowning

It’s been a merry-go-round for school officials this year as national and state economic woes have created havoc in budget planning.

Federal stimulus funds have, at least temporarily, allowed Middlesex school officials to come up with enough funds to prevent major layoffs in the coming school year.

The Middlesex County School Board voted last week to send a proposed $14,180,753 school budget to the county board of supervisors for its consideration.

The 2009-10 (FY10) budget proposal calls for all categories to be level-funded with no cuts or increases in county funds.

Middlesex schools will receive $283,000 in federal stimulus money through the state that can go toward the general operation of schools.  However, even with these stimulus funds, the budget reflects a $143,515 decrease in state funds compared to the current budget (FY09), and a total decrease of $135,311 in the overall school budget.

Additional stimulus funds of $190,000 for the federal Title I school program, and $335,000 for special education will be coming to the schools over a two-year period and can only be used for those programs.

There is also “some indication but no firm commitment” that the Governor did not use all of the funds this year and there may be some school dollars for fiscal year 2011, said Middlesex School Superintendent Rusty Fairheart.

The additional $283,000 is “certainly a welcome stimulant to our school budget,” said Fairheart. “It brings hope, but it also brings uncertainty. It provides sustainability for 2010, but it also brings uncertainty for 2011 and beyond, as far as what level of funding we can anticipate. 

“The number one goal of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is to sustain and create jobs, but it also cautions us to avoid making a one-time investment with temporary funding that creates reoccurring costs,” continued Fairheart. “What makes it difficult is that these two goals are contradictory. We’ve got to save and create jobs, yet not commit ourselves to reoccurring costs.  It’s a difficult task.”

Fairheart thinks next year will be even more difficult. “Here we are unable to provide compensation increases to our employees; we are building nearly $300,000 into the budget that may not be there next year; and the State Composite Index is going to be recalculated next year. What’s going to happen? Obviously, the locality is going to be asked to pick up a bigger burden next year.”
The current FY09 budget reflects a recalculated State Composite Index which, coupled with a decrease in student enrollment, cost the county nearly $700,000 previously provided by the state.
The Composite Index is a formula used by the state to determine a county’s ability to pay. Middlesex has extremely high waterfront land values, a major component in determining a locality’s Composite Index and ability to pay its own education costs. Using the Composite Index, Middlesex is considered the 13th wealthiest county in the state.

“What implications are the stimulus funds and everything else going to have on our staff next year?” asked Fairheart. “Maybe we would be better off to make those decisions now and move forward operating under the conditions that we will be expected to operate on in the future.

“It’s a difficult time,” repeated Fairheart several times.

The proposed 2009-10 (FY10) school budget calls for no increases in salaries for employees, and for a reduction of four staff members. The reductions will include elimination of one instructional position for a savings of $50,000 in salary and benefits, one support position for a savings of $30,000, and two bus drivers for a $25,000 savings.

Fairheart cautioned that if supervisors do not level-fund the school budget in FY10 and instead make cuts, he will be forced to eliminate programs or more jobs, which he’d rather do through attrition.

“If the supervisors level-fund the schools, we can get through the upcoming year without any more job cuts.”

Other school reductions in FY10 will include:

  • Making current 11-month social worker and psychologist positions into 10-month jobs at a savings of $8,000. 
  • Reducing total coaching supplements by $7,000.
  • Reducing purchasing services for technology by $60,000.
  • Deferring the purchase of technology equipment for a savings of $49,000.
  • Reducing other line items that amount to $40,000.

The total savings of all the reductions is $269,000.

posted 03.25.2009

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