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FRIDAY, JANUARY 19, 2007
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State tells Morgan schools to submit savings plan

By Bayne Hughes
hughes@decaturdaily.com 340-2432

Morgan County Schools got its 7.3 mill property tax renewal Tuesday, but the system's money troubles aren't past.

State Board of Education Finance Director Craig Pouncey gave Morgan County Superintendent Bob Balch, Finance Director Rodger Spillers and school officials from about 30 other school systems until Feb. 23 to submit plans to build their reserves to one month of operating expenses.

Morgan County projects ending the 2007 fiscal budget year with $1.6 million. One month's operating expenses would be about $4.5 million.

"They want the school systems to reduce any financial risk to the state with their reserves," Balch said after attending the Tuesday morning meeting. "If there's an emergency or proration occurs again, the state wouldn't have to come in and take over the school system. This is really just a safeguard."

The state is so serious that the Legislature passed a law requiring school boards to keep one month of operating funds in reserve. The state has taken over operations of school systems in Wilcox and Jackson counties because state officials believed they weren't working to improve their finances.

While they got a deadline to submit a plan, Balch said, they didn't get a deadline to raise their savings to the required level. They also don't have to show a specific amount of progress toward this goal.

"They just want you to show that you are making progress," Balch said.

Balch said Pouncey made several suggestions where school officials could find the cuts:

  • Eliminate or delay large capital outlay projects and non-emergency maintenance projects.

  • Cut transportation costs through limiting extracurricular activity travel and field trips.

  • Cut locally funded teacher units.

    Salaries and benefits make up 85 percent of the school system's budget, so personnel likely is one of the areas that will take the bulk of the cuts. Morgan County has about 60 locally funded teacher units.

    "We'll start first with retirements and resignations," Balch said. "If we get 15 or 20, that might be enough cuts."

    But he wouldn't rule out a non-renewal of all non-tenured teachers in May to give the school board flexibility in making the cuts.

    Growth

    One issue playing against local officials is growth. Priceville, Danville and Trinity are facing major growth issues that directly affect the number of local teacher units needed for small classes.

    The state figures state-funded teacher units on a school's average daily attendance during the first half of the first semester. Local school systems do not get additional funding when students move late in the opening semester or during the second semester, forcing them to use local funding.

    "The state understands that growth is an issue, but there's really nothing they can do for us right now," Balch said.

    Balch said he hopes to present a plan to the Morgan County Board of Education at a work session Feb. 8.

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