Budget Lesson for the School System

July 06, 1995

Use it or lose it -- words to chill the heart of anyone who has carefully hoarded vacation time for an extended leave or squeezed a budget to come up with a surplus for extra needs.

That's what the Carroll County Commissioners told the board of education last month: Spend the school system's budget surplus by the end of the fiscal year June 30 or forfeit the money back to the county government.

With nearly $2 million at stake, the school board was well prepared for the edict with a shopping list of computer equipment, books and instructional aids, vehicles and maintenance tools that was promptly utilized. Some of the extra cash will go toward renovation of West Middle School, if the county commissioners approve the fund category transfer.

The material purchases were already approved, officials explained, but the board had hoped to spend the funds in the next fiscal year's budget.

In the past, the commissioners allowed the school board to use any surplus money in the next year, adding that amount to the county's portion of the Carroll schools budget. The annual savings rollovers have averaged about $1.5 million.

But the new trio of commissioners wants the school system to be more careful in projecting its needs and expenditures, so that the county as a whole can benefit from school system savings and better choices can be made about how to spend local tax dollars each year.

Counting on the future use of any surplus funds every year tends to make for less precise budget accounting. Especially when the schools also count on the county to make up any contingency deficit.

The fact that "unexpected" savings have popped up in the school system budget each year has increased the commissioners' desire to get a tighter grip on what is annually the largest outlay for Carroll County government. The Carroll school budget for 1995-96 is $134 million; the county pays for about 60 percent of that.

While there will always be more needs than money for education, it's up to the school board to scrupulously lay out its needs for the year and to stick to the budget. Funds may be shifted as savings occur, but there's no need for last-minute spending sprees to use up authorized funds. It's a good lesson in home economics.

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