The red ink is expected to hit $79 million in the next fiscal year’s budget of $897 million. That deficit happens to be almost the same as the $79.5 million gap the district filled last year with $45.2 million from reserves and five staff furlough days.
The school board’s options for the looming deficit again include tapping the reserve fund, now about $75 million, furloughing more staff and/or raising the county school property tax rate. Another possible source of money is the state education department.
The wishful-thinking approach is to push for more state funds. That came across when Superintendent Michael Hinojosa and three school board members met with parents at East Side Elementary last week. Board chairman Randy Scamihorn urged parents to make Gov. Nathan Deal, who is running for re-election, “feel uncomfortable,” or feel the heat from Cobb voters over the school funding issue.
That’s a weak reed to lean on, but 2014 is an election year and that usually means promises from candidates. It’s possible that if state revenues continue to increase, more funds will be appropriated for local school districts next year and Cobb could get a little more money but nowhere near $79 million.
Is there room for cuts in the Cobb school budget? More than half the looming deficit is projected growth in spending. The new budget is $41 million higher than the $856 million for the current fiscal year. That’s an increase of about 4.8 percent. No doubt, district officials will say it is absolutely necessary and will point to the hefty cuts in this year’s budget that whacked off five more days of pay for teachers and other staff. No doubt, they will say they have cut expenses to the bone. No doubt, they need to revisit expenses.
As for raising the property tax, school board members will have to decide if it would mean political suicide for them. In the words of state Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-west Cobb), chairman of the Senate Education Committee (and former Cobb school board member): “They’ll have to weigh their revenue needs against the distaste of having to raise the millage rate.” Even if they do so, the additional revenue would not be enough to plug the budget hole.
That leaves the option of drawing on the $75 million in the reserve fund. The district’s chief financial officer, Brad Johnson, has said he would like to have in reserve at least $71 million, enough to run the school district for a month. That may be desirable, but the school board will have to decide if it’s better to have a reserve or balance the budget.
It seems the obvious solution under the circumstances is to take most or all the reserve funds and trim expenses a few million dollars. And then hope for more state funds and a stronger economy to generate more revenue in the future.