He and others on the board are looking for more creative ways to close the gap, without slicing into vital classroom instruction and support services such as buses for magnet schools. But the district is running short on time.
“I have good expectations that we are going to be much closer to the end after our next meeting,” he said Friday. “I am constantly urging (the staff) to continue looking for monies that we may just take for granted and don’t realize we are able to use.”
The board challenged Chief Financial Officer Brad Johnson to bring back more creative ideas to resolve the $86.4 million deficit at its April 17 work session.
“We’re going to take their direction from (Wednesday) and move forward and develop some budget ideas,” Johnson said. “We’re going to be working some crazy hours, but we’re going to do whatever the board wants, so we’re going to give it all we’ve got.”
Cobb Superintendent Michael Hinojosa met with his senior staff for a few hours following the Wednesday meeting and outlined what they would do with that board feedback.
“We all have to work in the processes, and there’s an art to compromise,” he said. “It’s difficult, but we also need to be fiscally responsible.”
Hinojosa plans to bring back a modified budget, and Scamihorn has scheduled a special meeting for April 22 at 2 p.m. in case they need it.
Hinojosa also addressed the board’s lengthy discussion about how much of the district’s reserves they’ll use to help soften the budget woes. Johnson said it will be between $100 million and $110 million by the end of fiscal year 2013.
The superintendent is pushing back against some board members who feel now is the time to tap into the school district’s healthy “rainy day” fund.
“It’s the right thing to do and the fiscally responsible thing to do to preserve it,” he said. “You don’t want to have too much in it, but we’re nowhere near having too much.”
District policy requires the board to have at least one month’s operating costs in the budget at all times — about 8.3 percent of the budget or $71 million.
But if there’s a fly in the ointment, it’s this: A portion of Hinojosa’s annual evaluation is determined by the reserve funds staying at the 8.3 percent level or higher.
Scamihorn said this requirement can be easily changed if needed.
“I think it’s a simple fix,” he said. “It would be unfair to hold someone to a standard that had to be slipped under to no fault of their own.”
Only ‘tough cuts’ remaining?
The finance department meets with each of the senior staff members and determines individual budgets, Johnson said.
“We ask them what can be done for the next year, and they get feedback from all the departments,” Johnson said.
Deputy Superintendent Cheryl Hungerford works with the schools to determine how many positions are available, and that’s something he said she’s doing at this time.
The senior staff will eventually get back together, lay all ideas on the table and determine priorities.
“When we talk, it’s like, ‘What is least hurtful to the classroom?’” Johnson said.
Over the last 10 years, as the school districts continue to receive cuts from state funding, those conversations have gotten more difficult.
“We only have tough cuts remaining,” he said. “They are all horrible cuts.”
Cobb County’s not alone
Johnson said other metro Atlanta school districts are also looking at tough cuts.
“We’re not the only people in this boat,” he said. “School district funding is just very difficult right now.”
With political pressure to keep property taxes from rising and state funding cuts every year — $72 million for Cobb this fiscal year and next — the budget talks statewide are bound to be rough.
Atlanta Public Schools is facing 10 percent in cuts, as well as no step increases for teachers and furlough days.
But Johnson said APS “has the luxury” of not having a cap on the millage rate. Cobb’s rate is capped at 20. Fulton County isn’t dealing with as many issues because it made deep cuts in 2011 and raised its millage rate by one point but is not allowing a step increase either, Johnson said.
“They already bit the bullet,” he said.
The Fayette County Board of Education is looking at a $15.5 million shortfall and anticipates closing four schools, cutting 310 teaching positions and cutting salaries, adding five furlough days and possibly ending some health care benefit supplements.
DeKalb County Schools functions on a $1 billion budget each year and isn’t anticipating any cuts, but the district does plan on continuing its hiring freeze, with the exception of teachers if needed, and a freeze on spending for travel and equipment or contracted services.
Just north of Cobb in Cherokee County, where the budget committee hasn’t finalized budget cuts, spokesperson Barbara Jacoby said they will probably face a $65 million shortfall and are looking at some tough cuts as well.
Its annual budget is about $321 million.
Gwinnett County is looking at running on a $1.76 billion budget next school year, which is about $13 million lower than this year. Schools spokesperson Sloan Roach said the district is looking at restoring two furlough days, doesn’t anticipate increasing class sizes and will add 18 school resource officers.
“We are continuing some of the measures we have taken in the past,” she said. “These steps have positioned us well for this coming year’s budget.”
Johnson said Gwinnett County also earns about $65 million in money from the state through an equalization grant.
“School districts in Georgia are eligible for an Equalization Grant if their wealth per student is below the state average for all school districts,” he said.
Last fiscal year Cobb contributed $135.6 million towards the state funding. The total for all State Equalization School District Grants for the next school year is $474.4 million.
Johnson said the state hasn’t determined what Cobb will contribute in fiscal year 14.
Marietta City Schools is just about the only district in metro Atlanta that isn’t anticipating any major cuts.
The city district, which serves about 8,000 students, will collect $74.2 million in revenues and spend $79.8 million for fiscal 2014, and is planning to dip into its $17 million reserve fund to fix the $5.6 million shortfall.