ATLANTA – Students will be in school for an additional day next year, schools will get more flex dollars per pupil and teachers will see their second consecutive pay increase under the recommendations being proposed in the fiscal year 2015 budget for the Fulton County School System (FCSS).
A 2.5 percent pay increase should be welcome news to employees who went five years without a raise during the economic downturn beginning in 2008. Last year, employees received a 3 percent raise, which was the first permanent increase since 2009.
School officials said measures were taken to compensate employees during lean years, pointing to a one-time bonus in FY 2012, followed by a 3 percent bonus the following year.
At an April 16 work session, the Fulton County School Board received a first look at the FY 2015 general fund budget being proposed by Superintendent Robert Avossa. The proposed budget of $886.5 million in expenditures exceeds expected revenues by $50 million, but the deficit will be covered by an infusion from the system’s reserve funds.
Even with the $50 million drawdown, the ending reserve funds will contain more than $151.5 million – in line with the goal of two to three months of operating costs.
Board member Katie Reeves of Alpharetta questioned the wisdom of using reserve funds for ongoing expenses, instead of only for one-time, non-recurring expenses.
“The big elephant in the room is, ‘what is the reserve being used for?” asked Reeves. “The larger discussion here is we are not covering our expenditures…[and we will not] until fiscal year 2018.”
School finance officials said they were confident the reserve funds will remain healthy through expected growth in the tax digest in coming years.
Across all programs, including the school nutrition fund, debt service and other non-general areas, the FCSS will spend more than $1.4 billion in FY 2015.
‘Zero-based budgeting’ creates school budget
This is the second year the FCSS has used zero-based budgeting to develop its annual plan. Avossa explained the process allows the system to “do more with less.”
With zero-based budgeting, all departmental costs are built from the ground up, starting at zero dollars, and based on need instead of fixed amounts from previous years. Throughout the year, “interviews” are held with department heads to provide an opportunity to lobby for the dollars needed to run their programs.
“The FY 2015 budget was developed using this process and it required that the budget be developed from the bottom up and based on demonstrated need rather than just approving incremental increases or decreases,” explained Avossa.
There is little wiggle room in the Fulton Schools budget from year to year, said officials, noting that 67 percent of the dollars go directly into classrooms and instruction. That leaves 33 percent to cover all other costs, including transportation, maintenance and operations, utilities and all the other non-classroom expenses.
“The economic slowdown, an enrollment growth of about 1,800 students next year, increases in health insurance costs and the reduction or elimination of some state and federal grants have created funding challenges for the school district,” said Avossa.
But even with those challenges, he said, the FCSS will have a balanced budget, keep class sizes the same and add more money per pupil in local schools to use as they see fit.
The system is also getting closer to an 180-day school year, which had been the norm before economic issues forced the system to cut three days off the calendar five years ago. There was no loss in instruction time, since the system made the school day longer to make up for the three days.
There was no word on whether the school days would shorten as the days are added back.
The millage rate of 18.502 is being proposed to remain unchanged for FY 2015. This would be the fifth consecutive year that the millage remains unchanged, and will keep Fulton’s rate the lowest in the metropolitan Atlanta area.
Public hearings on the budget are planned for May 6 and May 15, with tentative approval slated for May 15. The school board plans to formally adopt the budget in June.