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Schools in better fiscal shape
By BARBARA BEHRENDT
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 30, 2000
INVERNESS -- As the School Board got its first look at the budget for the 2000-01 fiscal year Thursday, the message from departing Finance Director Sara Perez was clear.
Financially, the district is in better shape than it was a year ago. But there are pitfalls ahead. And, there is not enough money to pay employees more than what's already been negotiated by their unions.
A year ago, Perez told the School Board the district had spent more money than it had brought in. The contingency fund, there to cushion the district in emergencies, had fallen to just $1.7-million, well below what was needed in a district with a $80-million-plus general fund.
On Thursday, the board was told the contingency now is just over $6-million. That includes $500,000 set aside in case the district again loses state aid due to an over-estimate of students.
The contingency figure proposed by the end of next year's budget is about $5-million, which Perez said is more comfortable for the district.
"We've really made some significant improvements," said Perez, who is expected to leave her job at the end of July and take a similar post in Hernando County. She described the steps the district had taken to examine spending and hiring, freeze each for a while and re-establish some controls in the financial system.
"It was important that we build back our reserves," she said.
Perez also stressed that those same measures -- meeting with the various schools and departments, going over budget requests carefully and justifying any increases in proposed spending -- have also been built into the budget for the coming year.
The School Board still must monitor the budget and set aside funding for expected expenses, such as leave time for employees and other expenses related to retirements. She predicted those costs will top $5-million over the next five years.
Even with that positive evaluation as well as news that the district will receive about $4-million more in state funds in the coming year, other news in the budget was not what some employees wanted to hear.
Teachers have been hearing that they should have received pay raises of 7 percent or more because of all the extra education money allocated by the Legislature. The raises negotiated and approved for them for next year is significantly lower.
Superintendent Pete Kelly has been meeting with representatives of the Citrus County Education Association to discuss the figures. He said he hopes that the union and the administration can send a joint letter to employees explaining that there really isn't a large pot of money available for higher pay raises.
Citrus officials maintain that a big chunk of the new money is earmarked for a specific expense related to remediating students and can't be spent on pay raises. Other counties, however, have used the money to pay teachers more and have said that state officials agree that is an acceptable use of the new money.
On Thursday, board members and School Board attorney Richard "Spike" Fitzpatrick spoke about the need to get a definitive answer from the state Department of Education, which sets the criteria for auditors to review to see if districts spend state money correctly. Fitzpatrick also suggested getting an opinion from the state Attorney General's Office.
Kelly said he felt the district needs to follow the law, which says the money couldn't be spent creatively. Perez agreed. "There really is not as much money available for raises and other purposes," she said. "It's a real disservice to districts because that message is out there."
Board member Carl Hansen said he was "ticked off" that some state officials are telling teachers all districts can use the money for pay raises.
Perez also noted that the state has set aside for Citrus $427,000 in a new category for teacher retention and recruitment. The district has not decided how to spend the money, but it could go to bonuses, moving expenses and other costs to get and keep teachers in shortage areas, such as foreign languages, math and science.
The board plans another budget workshop in July 18 with final budget approval planned in early September.
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.