Budget outlook is bleak

Fund source dries up

some school repairs might be deferred

September 10, 2006|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,sun reporter

Faced with the bleak reality that funds from an excise tax have run out, key school system personnel have prepared a worst-case scenario -- including scrapping several maintenance projects for older facilities -- in devising the $99.6 million capital budget for the 2007-2008 school year.

The proposal includes $11.7 million to expand full-day kindergarten at nine schools; $10.9 million for a new auditorium and renovation at Glenelg High School; $18.9 million for a comprehensive renovation at Mount Hebron High School; and $32.1 million for renovations at Clarksville Middle School and Worthington, Clemens Crossing and Waterloo elementary schools.

Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin's request is $4 million more than he sought for capital spending last year.

"The prognosis is poor," board Chairman Joshua Kaufman said as the board received the proposal. "These are extremely expensive projects, and they are all needed. ... I'm not particularly optimistic when I look at this budget."

Cousin attributed the increase in the budget to inflation and the state-required full-day kindergarten implementation.

"Our capital budget and capital improvement program reflect the needs of the school system," said Cousin, who briefed the board at a meeting Thursday. "The emphasis is trying to balance the needs of maintaining existing schools while trying to balance the need for new seats."

School construction costs have increased by 35 percent over the past two years, according to Ken Roey, the system's executive director of facilities and management.

Asked by school board member Courtney Watson if there was any chance that construction costs would decrease, Cousin immediately answered, "No." He added that the state's construction cost formula has increased every year since 1972.

Construction costs may be the least of the system's worries. Finding funding is the first priority, according to top-ranking system personnel.

For the past three years, the school system has relied on money from an excise tax to help pay capital costs. But after generating more than $60 million from a $1-per-square-foot surcharge on new homes, that tax has expired.

Cousin said he is worried about the coming budget and future budgets.

"The problem is not just making it year to year," Cousin said. "We just need a sustainable way of funding the capital budget in the future."

At Thursday's meeting, no one suggested a way to find more funding, so the focus turned to cuts.

Watson asked Roey how he would address a major cut in funding.

Roey did not hesitate in his response.

"We can't trim around the edges," he said. "We're going to have to cut entire projects."

But Roey also warned against deferring much-needed projects at existing facilities.

"It's a very insidious thing when you defer maintenance," Roey said. "All the sudden you face this huge wall of maintenance. The right thing to do is to cut projects rather than nibbling along the edges."

A public hearing for the capital budget is scheduled for Sept. 21, and the board is set to approve it Oct. 3. The County Council is to approve the budget Oct. 30.

Watson requested community input.

"It really is a discussion that we need to have with the community," she said. "We really need to have some input on this."

Kaufman agreed: "It really is a county issue."

Watson also called on elected county officials for help.

"It is not a problem that the Board of Education can solve," said Watson, who is not seeking another term on the school board. She is campaigning for a County Council seat. "We should have the County Council and the county executive in here before the election."

In addition to discussing the capital budget Thursday night, the board unanimously approved a new civility policy, which will cover language, actions, volume of voice during conversations and appropriate telephone and e-mail language and behavior at school sites and school-related events.


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