Budget shortfalls dog school budgeting | SierraSun.com

Budget shortfalls dog school budgeting

Things could be better, but they could also be a lot worse.

That attitude aptly describes Bob Nehls’ opinion of the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District’s current 2002-03 budget.

“I have to accept the fact that our district, just as every other school district in California, is dependent on the state economy,” said Nehls’, director of the district’s business department. “I also have to accept the fact that state economy is in extremely poor shape at the moment. However, that does make it a real challenge for us to provide services to our children and balance our own budget.”

Although the district approved its budget for the current year back in June, both the recent passage of the state budget and the closure of the district’s books from the previous year have given TTUSD a much clearer picture of the funds it has to work with.

Nehls says the state’s budget brought a mixed bag of good and bad news, with some anticipated funds being cut or delayed and some programs believed to be at risk, spared.

“I’m expecting that once we spend some time reflecting on the state budget, our district will see a continued decline in revenues and increase in expenditures,” Nehls said. “If I had to make a rough estimate at this point, I believe our budget could see as much as a $250,000 decrease in funds from the numbers we projected in our budget in June.”

Facts and figures aside, just where will Truckee schools and students feel the pinch of a day-to-day basis.

“One of the things that’s really going to impact us this year is the state’s decision to delay funding for transportation and school improvements,” he said.

Whereas the district typically receives $1 million a year to fund home-to-school transportation and special education transportation, the district will only receive $750,000 – three-fourths of that money this year.

“We won’t receive the rest until the 2003-04 year, which means we’re going to have to find a way to come up with that money, because we can’t just cut our transportation programs,” he said. “It comes down to the question of whether to tell people not to spend that money, or tell them to spend it now and we’ll find a way to cover it.”

The state has also taken a machete to funding for items that fall under the heading of instructional materials – books and libraries – cutting funds from $606 million to $433 million, a reduction totaling nearly a third.

It’s these very types of quick fix program and funding cuts or “one-time gimmicks,” that Nehls’ finds disconcerting about this year’s State budget.

“They may be effective in balancing the budget temporarily, but they really have no lasting impact,” he said. “That’s the scary thing. Even if they make these cuts this year, what are they going to do next year when they’re still facing a multi-billion dollar deficit. These [one-time gimmicks] really offer no long-term solutions, and only put the budget crisis onto the backs of local school districts.”

One tidbit of good news did come after the district closed its books for last year with a greater reserve for economic uncertainty than expected.

“Considering all of the projected variables and mid-year state budget cuts we faced, as well as the results of collective bargaining, we were hoping to come out of last year with a 3.5 to 4 percent reserve,” he said.

The state requires that district maintain, at minimum, a three percent reserve.

“What we actually ended up with was a 4 percent reserve with roughly $79,000 extra. Last year, we started with a reserve of 4 percent, so things basically remained the same.”

As part of the contract agreements reached between the district and several of its employee groups, most of the $79,000 will be distributed amongst employees in the form of a one-time bonus, off the salary schedule.

“It’s not a lot of money, but it’s in keeping with the spirit of the agreement, and something is always better than nothing,” he said.

Nehls said the board has yet to finalize the logistics of that distribution.

“More good news came when the state announced that it was not cutting funding for independent study programs, such as our Coldstream Program, or for the Community School, which is an extremely valuable program in our district,” he said.

With all of these changes, the district has now begun work on the first set of budget revision, which are set to go before the board for approval at the Dec. 4 meeting.

“That budget will take into account the final figures we had when we closed the books from last year, as well as the effects of the cuts and changes made by the State,” he said. “However, I’ve told the board that even though the state has passed a budget, there’s still a lot of unresolved issues. Things could change down the road, things that could have a negative or positive effect on the district.”

Overall, Nehls said it will take some time to see the net effect of these changes in the state budget on the TTUSD.

“Even with these cuts, the district is still expected to maintain it’s required three percent reserve this year,” he said. “However, with the state budget and the continued decline in enrollment in the district, it’s likely the board is going to have to consider making some serious budget reductions down the road, starting with the 2003-04 school year. We might even have to make cuts, in addition to the ones we’ve already made, for this year.”