The budget process wound down for the Williamson County Schools Board of Education Monday night as it approved a $260 million 2013-14 operating budget and $4 million in capital needs – millions of dollars shy of the original requests presented to County Commission committees.
However, capital funding [for district projects in maintenance and technology] took the hardest blow in April when the County Commission Education Committee and Budget Committee voted in approval of a recommendation that cut the request from $7 million to $4 million.
“Although this is not what we need, $4 million is better than nothing,” said Superintendent Dr. Mike Looney.
Although most board members agreed with Looney’s suggestion to move forward with the amount, they expressed their reservations. Some members even worried that the significantly reduced amount may lead to leaky roofs, cracked pavement or worse. Many of the capital projects on the 2013-14 capital request ledger linger from the 2012-13 school year.
“This is an inadequate amount to keep our buildings up such as roofs and parking lots, said Board Member Janice Mills, District 2. “It costs less to repair and fix than replace later.
“It’s like asphalt. If you invest in preventative maintenance like repairing cracks, etc., it’s more cost effective than replacing the whole thing once it breaks down,” Board Member Tim McLaughlin, District 4, said at the board work session Thursday night.
“We don’t care for our buildings like we should,” he said. “Our existing buildings are going down hill.”
The County Commission’s underfunding of the school district’s capital needs seems to be an ongoing theme according to McLaughlin, who spoke more about the issue at the work session.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” Laughlin said. “In year’s past, we’ve gotten half of what we’ve needed. Then, capital improvements are approved, but they say to pay out of fund balance.”
Due to the current trend that McLaughlin explained, the district is about $1.7 million short in funding the overall operating budget, thus failing to meet the state requirement of funding three percent of the overall budget. The shortage will most likely fall to the County Commission.
Laughlin said that the district would have the money to fund the overall budget for the upcoming school year if they had not been forced to dip into fund balance for capital needs last year.
The WCS fund balance began to recede last fall when the County Commission directed the school board to “use their own money” to fund some capital projects. Looney warned the body that the directive could hurt the district’s ability to fund the 2013-14 budget – a prediction that has come to fruition.
“If we do this [fund our own capital expenses], don’t be surprised if we have to come back and ask for more money to fund the budget,” Looney told the commission at the time.
“It’s a cycle that continues, but doesn’t look ahead,” McLaughlin said at the work session. “We need to some how make commissioners understand. This cycle is illogical.”
Some even argued that the original capital request of $7 million represented an already conservative amount.
“This is woefully short of what we need,” Mark Gregory, District 11, said at Monday’s meeting. Gregory cited that the original $7 million is still less than the estimated industry average to maintain the total square footage of all buildings in the district – which “should” be even more.
“We have 6 million square feet to maintain and are spending half of what the industry standard calls for to maintain the buildings,” Looney told the budget committee during a meeting in May based on findings by the WCS engineering team.
Looney also expressed his “worry” about WCS’s continually growing population, which affects the significant need to maintain buildings.
“I am worried that our estimate [of 2.76 percent in student population growth] might be too conservative,” Looney said. “We are having a huge influx of students. It was our best guess, but I think it’s on the low end,” Looney said at the previous meeting.
“We are running a car and not putting the oil in it,” Looney said Monday night.
Also, concern was expressed at the meeting that capital cuts would not allow the school district to prepare for PARC assessments (new computerized assessments aligned with common core standards that will test student performance) that are coming fast down the line in about a year.
Despite the capital shortcomings this school year, Looney encouraged the board to look ahead and move forward.
“It’s not in our best interest to make a prolonged debate but to make another attempt later,” Looney said at the work session.
“We have to move forward and begin funding our students for the upcoming school year.”
Aside from capital reductions, the operating budget comes in just under the board’s original request. WCS’s overall operational budget was sliced from $260.6 million to $258 million during first budget rounds then amped back up to $260 million to pay for the county’s two percent pay increase for all county employees.
Once the pay raise was allotted to employees, the district still takes a loss in its overall request, which forces them to further cut costs such as whittling down their request of 12 school psychologists – to help meet federal regulations and timelines – to now only six.
The fate of the WCS budget and capital funding now rests in the hands of the County Commission’s final vote July 8 at 9 a.m. in the auditorium of the Administrative Complex.