Schools to give back funds

Unused money will be returned to County Council

More than $300,000

Howard County

January 04, 2001|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

As Superintendent John R. O'Rourke prepares to present next year's operating budget request to the Board of Education, school board members are preparing to return to the county more than $300,000 in unused funds from the previous fiscal year.

Casey Burns, school system accounting officer, has told board members that an outside audit revealed $338,949 in unspent money from the operating budget of fiscal year 2000, which ended June 30.

The surplus represents a fraction of 1 percent of the $299.7 million total operating budget.

"That means we figured it pretty close," schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan said. "When you consider that our budget is $300 million, that is a minuscule amount."

FOR THE RECORD - An article Thursday in the Howard County edition of The Sun incorrectly stated that annual surpluses in the county schools budget must be returned to the County Council. Leftover money goes back to the county's general fund.
The Sun regrets the error.

Budget money usually is left over every year. By law, that money must be returned to the County Council. In fiscal year 1999, $787,830 was returned. In 1991, $2.6 million was returned. In 1992, $336 was left.

"I think surpluses in the area of 1 percent [of the total budget] is a goal to shoot for," Burns said, adding that he would like to use every budgeted dollar each year. "There are circumstances each year that aid or prevent that."

In fiscal year 2000, money was left over from several areas in the budget, including administration, instruction, health services and maintenance. All the money will be returned to the County Council, except in the category of transportation - the only area from which funds can be carried over into the next year's school coffers. Burns said about $11,000 is left to use next year.

The remaining amounts in each category range from $217 left in the administration budget to $103,411 left in operations, which includes such expenditures as the schools' utility bills.

"It's hard to predict utilities," Burns said. "Last year was not as drastic a year as we may be facing this year."

In the category of instruction - which includes salaries, supplies and teacher training - about $65,000 in "other" expenditures is left over.

"That's typically consultants or contracted services, conferences, meetings, teacher travel," Burns said. "Exactly where in that [category] does the surplus come from? It's probably a combination of a lot of little things."

Burns said that when the school district budgets money for teachers to attend professional conferences, for example, officials have no way of knowing where the conferences will take place.

"If the conference is in California, we could go over that budget," he said. "If it's in Towson, we might not spend all of that money. We never really know."

School district critics have complained that money left in the schools budget - particularly in the area of instruction - could be used to purchase necessary items such as graphing calculators for advanced math students.

But Burns said it is difficult to move money from one area of the budget to another. The County Council must approve such moves, and that process is lengthy and complicated, he said. Also, surpluses generally aren't noticed until April or May, usually too late to begin that process before the end of the school year.

Burns said that instruction is an area he would like to budget more precisely.

"If we had watched closely, maybe we could have done a better job there," he said. "Another option would be for the county government to allow us to retain this money."

Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director, said the surplus benefits the schools, because the excess revenue is used the next year to supplement the district's capital budget.

"The bigger the surplus, the more ability there is to fund new schools or improvements to new schools," Wacks said.

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