With escalating expenses and falling federal funds, the Jessamine County school district will make it at least one more year without raising taxes.
The board of education voted unanimously Thursday at a special meeting to keep the tax rate the same as last year — 62.9 cents per $100 assessed value of real and personal property, which is expected to bring in $22.8 million, $200,000 more than last year’s tax revenue.
Superintendent Lu Young told board members during tax discussions at Monday’s regular meeting that this would be the first of several lean financial years as mandated retirement expenses continue to increase and federal funding sources decrease. The district projects its unassigned general fund — currently at its highest-ever balance of $8,750,000 — will take a $1.4 million hit this year.
That decrease is made up mostly of recurring expenses that will come back each year: contributions to retired teachers’ health insurance and county retired workers’ health insurance, step salary increases, two additional instructional days not paid for by the state, and teacher salaries that were previously paid for with federal program funding that is now gone. Those additional recurring annual costs are projected to reach as high as nearly $2.5 million in the 2015-2016 year with an additional elementary school, increases to retirement contributions, more step increases and the potential loss of more federal funds through sequestration.
“I just want you to see the dark clouds looming,” Young told the board. “I didn’t want to lull you into some false sense of security that we had this cushioned bank account that’s going to hold us forever.”
The district has been preparing for the cuts for years through what Young called “austerity measures” of cutting staffing by 2 percent, cutting instructional assistants by 50 percent, taking a 5-percent cut in non-essential costs at central office and pursuing energy savings.
Young said at Thursday’s meeting that she was trying to avoid becoming a certain cartoon character who tends to proclaim imminent doom.
“I think by being able to hold the line and not raise taxes this year proves that we’re not Chicken Little — we’re not out there all the time saying the sky is falling; we’re doing something about it,” she said. “We’re saving money when we can save money. We’re going to ride it through one year, but Chicken Little may re-emerge by the time next fall rolls around.”
The figures presented Thursday assume the continuation of the district’s free full-day kindergarten program. The administration has speculated in the past that more revenue would be needed to avoid adding tuition to the program, but the rising general-fund balance has kept tuition off the table so far.
Special education and sequestration
Board member JoAnn Rohrback said she was pleased with the district’s current situation with one exception — the 50-percent cut in instructional assistants.
“I still think that we need to bring some of those back as we can, as much as the budget would allow,” Rohrback said. “I think that’s a disservice to our children; I don’t think it’s worth the money that we’re saving.”
Young said the district had been “overstaffed” on instructional assistants before the cuts but admitted she worries the cuts have left them “too thin.”
The additional loss of federal funds in the coming years would occur if the government does not stop a sequestration in January that would cut between 7.9 and 9.1 percent of the funds Jessamine County Schools receives, Young said.
Chief of staff Matt Moore, who served previously as director of special education, said the district currently gets about $1.3 million in federal special-education funding each year through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The sweeping budget cuts of sequestration would make the local county district contribute more money to special education just to continue providing the mandated services.
“It doesn’t come with a tandem reduction in responsibilities on the part of the school district, so we are still bound by federal law, and yet we lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in support that we have literally counted on in order to provide these rich services,” Young said.
The district is already looking at ways to expand instructional assistants this year to help some disruptive students get individual attention and work their way into a normal classroom, Young said, adding that schools are using volunteers for instructional support “more than ever before.”