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Grissom column: School financial crisis is deepening

In the 30-plus years that I have been involved in education, I have never experienced an economic situation or financial crisis that has affected school systems as much as this school year. Each week it continues to become worse and more and more difficult for school systems to find ways to shoulder the increasing financial burden.
Earlier in the school year, each school system was requested to revert funds back to the Department of Public Instruction. For our school system, the amount was $817,000. We used lapsed salaries of employees who had left the system and had not been replaced as well as staff development funds and travel funds. Fortunately, we had been conservative in our spending and were able to weather the first storm without affecting classrooms or general operation of the system.
Early last week, the second storm appeared with the governor’s announcement of furloughs for state employees and school personnel to address a state budget gap that is expected to be more than three billion dollars. All state employees and school personnel will be furloughed 10 hours, meaning that their annualized pay will be cut 0.5 percent and deducted from the May and June paychecks, except for 10-month employees whose full reduction would come from their May paycheck. The school system has received little information on how to manage the furloughs and we have more questions than answers.
The next storm rolled in at the end of last week when school systems were notified that we were required to revert an additional amount of funds back to the state. This reversion for our school system will be close to $600,000. The Department of Public Instruction is requesting that the State Board provide flexibility to transfer funds between categories to cover this reversion.
This request would be easier to accomplish if it did not come at the end of the school year and if funds were available in all of the categories.
In addition to all of the state reversions, salary cuts and personnel furloughs, we have been asked to revert in excess of $300,000 back to the county commissioners in local funds.
Unfortunately, we are in a real budget crisis and will have to use fund balance to cover some of our reversions and to meet some of our needs for the next school year. It is a dangerous precedent to dip into fund balance for recurring items similar to using a savings account to make monthly rent payments.
May is here and school systems have no idea of the amount of budget cuts that will take place next year. This is also the first time in my career that I have no idea of what the budget will be for the following year.
Even in the years when budgets were not approved until fall, school systems had at least some idea of parameters on allocations. We have very little information to make budget decisions, yet the decisions will definitely affect the lives of many of our staff members and the education of our students.
We hear many stories about stabilization and stimulus funds and the possibility that these funds will help offset a number of the cuts. However, information on how these funds can be used without supplanting existing programs (something that cannot be done with federal funds) is lacking at this time. Regardless of how we eventually can use the stimulus funds, the total additional amount of funding does not equate to the amount of reduction that has been discussed.
The next year for educators will indeed be one of the toughest years that we have experienced in a very long time. Those of us who work with the budget will continue to keep classroom instruction and student needs as a primary focus.
However, it will take all of us working together to keep our momentum going and improve education for all of our students during this economic crisis.
– – –
Dr. Judy Grissom is superintendent of the Rowan-Salisbury School System.

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