Both the Barrow and Jackson County Boards of Education are considering tapping into reserves to balance their FY09 budgets. While governments often use reserve funds during times of economic stagnation, the Barrow BOE is looking to use one-third of its reserves to cover a projected budget shortfall.
Several issues are apparently driving this process. First, the situation again points to the weaknesses of the current state QBE funding formula. School systems often don’t know until the last minute exactly what the state will fund year-to-year. That’s because both the governor’s office and state legislature have increasingly made education a funding football that gets kicked around the political field. Over the last decade, for example, state funding has decreased as a percent of the total local budget, forcing up local school taxes.
Second, the cost of transportation is hitting all school districts hard as fuel expenses surge.
Finally, the economic downturn will hit the county’s tax digest, perhaps keeping it flat for the upcoming budget. In the past few years, annual growth in the tax digest has helped local governments absorb the costs of doing business. That won’t be the case this year.
Unfortunately, there’s little the Barrow BOE can do about some of these financial problems. Unlike city and county governments, school system budgets exist under a mountain of state and federal mandates. For example, school systems can’t simply cut teachers when times get tough because the state dictates certain student-teacher ratios.
Still, for the system to draw down its reserves by $2.4 million — reserves that are already rather thin when compared to the systems $98 million budget — is troubling.
It may be time for school system leaders and patrons to sit down and make a list of priorities for the school system so that if further budget cuts become necessary, they can be done from some basis of consensus.