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School Board wants budget process altered

Despite workshops, members say they still have lots of questions days after the budget was adopted.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 15, 2001


Despite workshops, members say they still have lots of questions days after the budget was adopted.

INVERNESS -- On the one hand, the school district's finance director Sam Hurst couldn't understand why the School Board was questioning key points in the district's budget earlier this week.

On the other, he understood exactly why they had questions.

During Thursday's board meeting, Hurst said the district's budgeting process has serious flaws. He gave examples of problems and at one point acknowledged that "it encourages people to play games."

Board members have been concerned with the district's spending plan for several reasons. While employees have been told that money is tight and it will be hard to find money for raises, the budget presented to the board includes $9-million in contingency funds, more than $2-million of which is not earmarked for any particular purpose.

Also, the board has been concerned that millions of dollars remained unspent at the end of the current budget year, yet even more money has been budgeted for the coming year.

"I'm still concerned about the budget," said board member Ginger Bryant at the meeting, two days after the adoption of the budget. "I don't want us to go on a spending spree."

Bryant has said the district should freeze spending while employee contracts are unsettled. The three employee unions are to meet with Hurst and district negotiators to reopen raise and contract talks on Sept. 24.

Board members Carol Snyder and Patience Nave questioned the district's surplus, which topped $14-million until recently. About $5-million of that had to be folded back into the budget, Hurst told the board.

"Why not just reduce the budgeted amount?" Nave asked.

Hurst said it isn't that simple. Some of the dollars were carried over from funds earmarked for specific projects. With so many strings attached to state dollars, the district has little flexibility, Hurst said.

"We tried and, in fact, we went back to the district-level cost centers" to make cuts, Hurst said. "But there was no way, given the growth of students and the needs of the district to bring the expenditures within the expected revenues."

Hurst told the board that they should have already been aware of the amounts in surplus and what those funds had been set aside for based on all the board workshops on the budget.

"I guess that's why I'm a little bit unnerved by so many questions about the annual financial report. It shouldn't have been a surprise," Hurst told the board. "And it shouldn't be a surprise that you spend more than you bring in because you've done that for years."

Board member Pat Deutschman, who has analyzed the budget, said she thought the fluctuations the board was seeing were part of the normal budget process. "We need to ask our questions without drawing conclusions," she said.

Board member Sandra "Sam" Himmel had done her own analysis as well, and she found spending increases of $2.7-million over last year's budget. "I think we have reason to say, "Why do we do that?' " Himmel said.

Nave agreed and said that the amount budgeted for the School Board had increased by $1-million to $1.759-million.

But Hurst used the School Board's budget as an example of why the current budget system is illogical.

By the time all the extra expenses not related to the School Board but also not connected to other departments, including surplus money for workers' compensation and insurance, were subtracted, the board's budget was only $27,900.

Hurst called the system "a confounded mess. . . . I understand why you folks are confused. I'm confused."

Both Hurst and Superintendent David Hickey vowed to begin making changes in the budget process. The board also made it clear that they wanted some specific information next year as they go through the budget process.

"The five of us are telling you that we need more time and more information" to make budget decisions, Deutschman said. Among the information she requested was a narrative from Hurst explaining what areas of the budget were increasing and why and how much money was carried over.

Himmel urged department by department presentations of the budget next year, giving each much more time than they were allowed to explain their spending plans this year.

- Staff writer Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or 564-3621.

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