Baldwin County School Superintendent Dr. Noris Price normally presents the school district’s tentative budget for the upcoming fiscal year each April.
But this has not been a typical year.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has affected not only day-to-day school operations, but the uncertain financial climate has also brought a few question marks into the budgeting process for FY2021, which is set to begin July 1. The school superintendent let Baldwin County Board of Education members know last week during their teleconference meeting that school districts have been told to prepare for 14 percent cuts in state funding. Locally, such a cut would represent about $3.5 million from the state’s quality basic education (QBE) funding formula, which is used to determine how state funds are dispersed to the 181 school systems across Georgia.
The good news is that the Baldwin County School District (BCSD) and its more than 5,000 student enrollment could stomach such a reduction due to its healthy fund balance, according to the superintendent. She said pulling from the fund balance would keep Baldwin County from taking measures such as staff furlough days, cutting programs, cutting positions or increasing class sizes to make up the difference. Some school systems may be faced with a different reality.
“I can tell you that there are a lot of school districts across the state that are not in this position and are going to have to make some very, very difficult decisions in the next few months,” Price said.
The cut is not a certainty at this point, as all state departments have been told to prepare for the 14 percent loss, but it is a possibility.
“We’ve been told that everything is on the table, including education,” added Price.
The Baldwin County School District has built its fund balance up to $22 million thanks to a few factors in recent years. One is budgeted positions that go unfilled while another is the district’s ability to obtain grant funding for budgeted expenditures such as the purchase of digital learning devices like tablets. Revenues have also come in higher than expected.
Price and school district CFO Samantha Jenkins presented a tentative FY21 budget of $46.8 million to the school board, which was adopted before last Tuesday’s regular meeting was adjourned. That figure is slightly lower than the FY20 budgeted expenses set at $46.9 million. Price said the budget would have increased based on the recommended needs of school principals, but those needs were voiced before the pandemic hit.
“At that point, I made the decision that we would not be adding anything to this budget and that I would bring a budget to the board with no growth,” said Price. “Nobody expected us to be in the situation that we are in at this point in time with the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact it would have on our economy.”
Of the school district’s budgeted revenues, 58 percent comes from the state while 42 is from local tax dollars, and 72 percent of the total goes toward instructional costs. The remaining 28 percent is split nearly evenly between maintenance, transportation, school administration and non-school administration costs. The FY21 budgeted revenues are estimated at $43.9 million, so the school district will need to pull about $6.4 million from its fund balance in order to cover the difference should the 14 percent cut take effect. The school board likes to keep a quarter of budgeted expenses in its fund balance, so pulling the $6.4 million would leave that balance at about $15 million, which is still well over the 25 percent mark.
Board chair Lyn Chandler asked the superintendent about unexpected costs incurred due to the pandemic. Price’s reply was that the federal CARES (Corona Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act was created just for that. Baldwin County was set to receive more than $2 million through that avenue, so those costs have not been included as part of the upcoming budget.
Moving forward, the school district’s FY21 budget will be advertised in the public notices section of The Union-Recorder. BCSD will hold two budget hearings open to the public before it is formally adopted.