Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Metro schools can't use savings to meet budget this year

Metro must find other ways to meet budget By Jaime Sarrio • THE TENNESSEAN • January 6, 2010 Metro Nashville school officials are bracing for another tough budget year, and this time borrowing reserve funds — like some of the other distasteful measures the district took last year — won't be an option for filling the holes. In the past two years, the district has dipped into savings to fund part of its $620 million budget. Last year, the district double dipped from the account to make up for sluggish sales tax revenue, which didn't meet projections. As a result, the district's reserve fund is just above the legally allowable minimum. That means school officials will have to draft a 2010-11 budget that takes into account still-slow consumer spending, without the help of reserves, and get it approved by April to send to Mayor Karl Dean. The current budget is already running $7 million short of projections because of sales tax revenue. Director Jesse Register said the district cut 150 teaching positions last year, prompting larger class sizes. "We can't do that again," he said. "I know without an increase in revenue, we're going to have to make some significant cuts. My goal is to not impact classroom instruction." The district also cut janitorial positions and pulled about $32 million from reserves to cover expenses, bringing the savings account down to $27.3 million. But Metro Nashville Public Schools won't be able to dip into savings this year because state law requires all school districts to keep 3 percent of their budget in a rainy day fund. The district's balance is equivalent to 4.4 percent of the budget, and the city prefers it to stay at 5 percent. Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling would not comment on whether the Dean administration would recommend a tax increase this year. Mayor Bill Purcell, who preceded Dean, increased property taxes twice for various city needs — with Metro Council approval. "It is our intention to fully fund the school system as we have," Riebeling said. "How we get there and the details? I don't know the answers yet." He said he is hoping consumer spending will increase and bring more revenue into the county. Other challenges await The budget woes come as the district is trying to fend off state control by improving test scores after years of not meeting standards. Metro schools met state standards last year, but students must show one more year of improvement before the district is removed from the state's watch list. The district also is trying to adjust to a new set of tougher curriculum standards, which took effect statewide this fall. Nashville parent Terri Short, who has two students at Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet School, said she opposes a tax increase and believes the district can achieve its goals with the existing funding. "I think we're getting carried away with a lot of new innovations that are not proven to enrich the growth of our students," she said. "They should redirect the money to focus on teacher development, teacher quality, continued education for teachers and learning for students." The Metro school board finance committee will meet Tuesday to discuss upcoming budget issues, but officials say it is premature to identify where cuts will be made. Committee Chairman Steve Glover, who represents the Hermitage area, said he expects the district also will have to account for increases in pensions, insurance costs and scheduled pay raises. "We're going to have some deficits, and we have some massive increases coming we have no control over," he said. "We're conscious of economic realities, and we're going to continue to be good stewards of the money."

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