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Budgeting, Citrus School Board style

By JEFF WEBB, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 3, 2002

What has more padding than a Victoria's Secret boutique?

The Citrus County School District's current budget.

Want proof? Here's some.

The superintendent and School Board cut nearly $3-million out of the budget recently and they didn't even break a sweat.

Johnny can still read. Students are still root-root-rooting for the home team. And teachers are still overworked and underpaid.

Just another day at the office for Superintendent David Hickey and the School Board members, who obviously have more of your money than they need. If that wasn't true, cutting millions from the budget would be positively painful.

As it is, they didn't even flinch.

Still not persuaded the proof is in the padding?

The $2.9-million the board saved didn't even come out of the primary contingency fund, where more than $6-million is already squirreled away for a rainy day. Instead, it came from a pool of many contingency funds, where extra money is routinely stashed so that when a financial storm blows in, the district can weather it.

The spin that board members are putting on this is that Citrus County taxpayers should be thankful they planned for the defecit, which was created by the statewide slump in tourism and underestimated enrollments. If there wasn't lots of extra money in the $152-million budget and reserves, they say, the unanticipated shortfall in state funding that is crippling some other counties would be creating a bigger problem here.

That's one way to look at it.

Another is that the standard practice of stashing money in dusty corners of the budget misleads the public and paints a deceiving picture of the district's finances. The view from this perspective is seen more clearly by residents who believe their school taxes are too high, and by employees who wonder why the superintendent has suspended negotiations indefinitely with the union representatives who want pay raises for their employees.

These are the folks who have been told by one superintendent after another, year after most years, that there just wasn't enough money in the budget to give them better raises, or in some of the leanest years, any raises at all. They've become accustomed to feeding on whatever crumbs the superintendent and School Board let fall from the table after they've sated their appetite for new jobs and programs.

To be fair, it's not all the superintendent's fault. Hickey's predecessor, Pete Kelly, had stashed money in odd places, too. The practice has been years in the making. But the difference is that Kelly was better at managing it than Hickey is. Even School Board Chairwoman Pat Deutschman admits that.

"Pete Kelly had a much better handle on the budget (than Hickey) because of his years on the (Inverness) City Council," Deutschman said recently. "He was very good at manipulating the budget, much to my distress sometimes.

"I'm not sure (Hickey) understands accounting principles as well as Kelly did. I have a better understanding than most of the board members because of what I do in life," said Deutschman, who manages her husband's law practice and has taken accounting courses.

Still, Deutschman says she doesn't think Hickey's shortcomings in crafting the budget poses a problem. "I expect him to be the chief teacher, not the chief financial officer," she said, expressing confidence in the administrators who have more intimate knowledge of the budget.

However, Deutschman says the district needs to find better ways to prepare and present the budget, particularly regarding leftover money that is carried over from one year to the next.

"We need to identify separate lines for carry-over revenue and expenses, so it doesn't blend in to the new budgets. Each budget should be a clean slate," she said.

"We also need to revise how we do the budget presentations so that everyone understands it. Maybe we should survey employees about how we can make it clearer."

Deutschman says district workers "have been very understanding" about the current budget crunch. "They know (the state shortfall) puts everything in great jeopardy. Maybe it looks like there is more money available . . . but maybe it's not money we can commit to salaries."

Maybe. But if I was a teacher -- or a bus driver or a cafeteria worker or a secretary -- I'd be at the next union meeting asking the members of my bargaining team exactly how closely they have scrutinized the budget. And if I was one of those union reps, I'd demand that Hickey and the board return to the negotiating table and show me the money.

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