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Clay Schools need to fill $1.7 million hole to meet state requirements

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Updated: 7/29/2013 11:53 pm
FLEMING ISLAND, Fla. -- The Clay County School Board adopted a tentative budget just shy of $300 million Monday, but the work is far from over.

They are now tasked with cutting $1.7 million over the next two years.

The problem is the district's unassigned fund, commonly referred to a savings account. The state suggests that 3 percent of the district's total local and state revenue be in the account at all times in case of a shortfall. That equates to approximatey $8 million dollars for the 2013 - 2014 school year.

But the fund has taken three big hits this year, and total is only about $6 million.

First, The Florida legislature increased the state's retirement rate by 1.77 percent, which totals about $3.5 million for the district each year for the district's 5,000 employees.

Second, over the past four years, the district has taken advantage of a state approved .25 mil rate, bringing in an additional $4.5 million a year, but the state said that is no longer an option this year. Superintendant Charlie Van Zant says the money wasn't misspent.

"To ge the state to match that money, we had to spend it in the operational budget line. We couldn't sock it away in the savings account. I would have loved to have been able to do that with with that quarter mil, but it wasn't an option."

Third, enrollment in Clay County has dropped substantially in the past two years, leading to a loss of about $6 million a year. The district grew from 27,000 student in 1998 to 36,000 in 2007, but this year only 34,700 students are expected to enroll.

"I think they're going to wherever their parents can find jobs. Our homeschool numbers haven't spiked, some private schools have closed - we've actually regained some of those students, and our virtual enrollment has increased. It's very unpredictable. You would think you could take kindergarten, first, second graders and project them into the next grade level and have that many students. It doesn't work that way, at least not here."

Salaries and benefits make up about 88 percent of the districts operational budget, but school officials would like that percentage to be closer to 82 percent. However, Van Zant says cutting teachers isn't a good option, because the state has new class size requirements.

"New hard class numbers means less students in each class. We have 1,300 or so less students than we had 4 years ago, but we have roughly the same number of teachers. That's expensive."

Van Zant is looking elsewhere for possible places to cut, but says it won't be easy.

"We'll continue to look for innovations and places we can spend the 12 or 13 percent that's not on personnel, and squeeze a little more juice out of that orange...If there was a source of money to bring that up to 3 percent I would have already done that."

Board member Carol Studdard says they have no choice but to try.

"We will do everything we can to keep it from hitting the classroom. That will be the last place that we look to make any cuts."

The Clay County School Board will hold a budget workshop on August 12 at 4:30 PM to review expenses. The final budget will be adopted on September 12.

Dr. George Copeland, Assistant Superintendant for Business Affairs tells Action News that the district is in somewhat of a hiring freeze.

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