Degree of cuts unknown under initial $670.5M schools budget

Monday, February 28, 2011 at 10:02pm

The Metro Nashville Board of Education got its first glance Monday at a proposed $670.5 million schools budget for the 2011-2012 fiscal year, a 6 percent funding increase from the current year, but a preliminary draft likely to undergo changes moving forward. 

With school officials still waiting word on state education allocations and local sales and property tax revenue figures, Director of Schools Jesse Register said he expects the budget to change and anticipates makings cuts. This year’s budget process is complicated because the district must account for $30 million in vanishing federal stimulus dollars, funds that helped boost the school system’s financial status during the recent recession.  

“There are a number of unknowns still,” Register said.

“What we’re doing now is we’re looking at everything that we can look at to tighten up this budget as much as we can to reduce the amount of increases needed,” he said.

Chris Henson, the district’s finance director, unveiled to the board’s budget and finance committee Monday the first draft of a budget that would see the district’s budget jump more than $37 million. Given the unknown factors, he called the budget a “work in progress.”

“There are a number of things that we still don’t know related to state funding,” Henson said. “We also don’t have yet our local funding estimates from the Metro Finance Department.”

Nearly $15 million in proposed increases to the budget result from employee compensation, which includes paying an additional $10 million-plus towards employees’ insurance.

Henson said officials also added $6 million to the budget to accommodate the district’s growth in charter schools, with five more set to open next year, bringing in an additional 736 students to the publicly financed, privately run schools. In short, he said students who leave traditional schools for charter schools don’t offset the staff-level required at their former schools.

“The per-pupil calculation follows the student to the [charter] school,” Henson said of the financial requirements of added charter schools. “This is actually reflecting a transfer from the operating budget over to the separate charter school fund to be distributed out to the charter schools based on number of students enrolled.”

Board members are to convene Wednesday night to ask Register and his administration questions about the preliminary budget. A public hearing on the budget is scheduled March 10, with a final draft going before the board for a vote on March 22.

Mayor Karl Dean has scheduled a Metro schools budget hearing for March 31 at 3 p.m. 

Last year, the school board, Metro Council and Dean approved the current fiscal year’s $633 million budget, a $12.6 million budget increase from the previous year.

Because the district had already depleted its reserves, the district was forced to turn to cuts to make up a $25 million gap between revenues and expenditures. Those cuts, aimed at protecting teaching positions, included outsourcing 600 custodial positions, reducing the hours of bus drivers and laying off 24 central office employees.

On Monday, Register said protecting teaching positions remains the priority this year as well. He also said the district is not weighing whether to outsource bus drivers when asked if that is a possibility.

“At this time, we’re not considering that,” he said.