School districts stretch budgets

As students flock back to classes for the 2010-11 school year, public school districts are feeling the pinch and operating with budgets that have taken a beating.

Along the Grand Strand, districts will experience this year's cutbacks differently, but even more unnerving for school officials is the question of how to deal with 2011-12, which is projected to be even tougher.

In Horry County, this year's $546 million budget was passed with no millage increase for operations and a 6-mill decrease for debt service.

The school board waived salary staff increases - which saved between $3.1 million and $3.2 million, according to Jeff Riddle, HCS chief financial officer - used $13.2 million in one-time federal stabilization funds and cut expenditures to balance the budget. About 120 professional jobs were cut, addressed through attrition and reassignments, and the board made an adjustment for two teachers the district did not reassign so they could remain as long-term substitute teachers at full, certified pay for up to one year.

While HCS officials worked to shelter programs for this year, some adjustments had to be made, including increasing class size to 26 at the middle and high school levels; eliminating the ACT and SAT scholarship programs; eliminating the scholars' banquet, saving $32,000; reducing or eliminating some counseling programs through Waccamaw Mental Health, a savings of $570,000; reducing some bus drivers' midday employment, cutting about $500,000; spending $75,000 less for elementary science kits; and relocating preschool programs to reduce overhead.

"We haven't made decisions [for 2011-12], but I don't know how long we'll be able to protect programs," Cindy Ambrose, chief academic officer with Horry County Schools, has said about this year's budget cuts. "We're ill at ease thinking about what the future holds."

Teal Britton, HCS spokeswoman, said efforts have been made to minimize any discomfort and to keep students from feeling that there has been any loss. She said the district hasn't gotten to the place where a service was expected but unavailable.

"Some districts since this past spring aren't going to have a sport at the middle-school level, or they'll be missing a service, and we don't have that," said Britton, who said nothing would be noticeable in day-to-day operations. "It's just been these slight changes that can be absorbed because of the size of our district."

Britton said increasing class size is also something that would not necessarily be noticed when walking into a classroom because of the difference between an allocation formula and a student-teacher ratio.

With an allocation formula, a certain number of students at a school determines how many teaching positions that school receives. Principals decide how allocations are used and how teachers are grouped, Britton said.

The student-teacher ratio is how many students there are per teacher in a classroom, but that can be misleading and depends on how allocations are used at a particular school. (Depending on how positions are allocated, a parent can't walk into any classroom, start counting heads and accurately calculate an increase in class size.)

"All of our averages are well under what the state will allow for pupils per classroom," Britton said.

Britton said parents will recognize changes in some offerings, such as the fee for drivers' education, which has increased from $50 to $250. The class is required for obtaining a driver's license, but it is not a requirement for a high school diploma. Britton said it falls into a category of services that have been offered in better times but now may be questionable in terms of the district's role to continue the offerings.

As to the future, HCS Superintendent Cindy Elsberry gave the school board a budget projection for 2011-12, anticipating at least a $17 million shortfall and no revenue increases. The projection included cuts in programs such as fine arts, athletics, career and technical courses, and scholars courses, which board member Harvey Eisner, District 1, called "heart-wrenching concerns."

Georgetown County

The Georgetown County School District is working with about $3.6 million less for this school year, said Superintendent Randy Dozier.

Dozier said that cut translated to the loss of one or two teaching positions and about a dozen support personnel positions.

He said about 80 percent to 90 percent of the district's $68.3 million budget is for personnel costs such as salaries and health care.

"You're really talking about people when you're trying to balance the budget," he said.

But he said those people are crucial to the district meeting state and national standards.

"That's what really hurts the most," he said. "The standards to improve haven't changed, they've gotten tougher."

But Dozier said the 2011-12 budget year will be even harder for the district, with the loss of stimulus money.

"Next year we're looking at another $3.5 million cut," he said. "We're trying to come up with a plan."

He said balancing next year's budget is going to involve some tough choices for the district.

"We've cut everything we can cut," he said.

He pointed out that the district did not tap into its reserves this past year, but may have to next year. He also said the district may have to increase class sizes.

"We've stayed away from that," Dozier said, but he said increasing classes by one student would mean saving $1 million. But he also attributes this past year's progress in meeting educational standards to smaller class sizes and directed teaching.

"You hate to lose that progress because of budget cuts," he said. "Next year's a big bump."

Brunswick County, N.C.

Brunswick County schools' $110 million budget took a $2.5 million hit this fiscal year, matching last year's drop in revenue, said Freyja Cahill, finance director for the school system.

The budget, finalized Aug. 3, appropriates $2.5 million from the system's fund balance to make it through the year, again matching last year's action. But this year Cahill is almost certain it will be needed. While the money was appropriated for the 2009-10 fiscal year, it ultimately wasn't needed.

But there will be cuts in expenses this fiscal year, as well, Cahill said.

The system has eliminated 14 vacant jobs and started the transition of pre-kindergarten classes from the public schools to private educators. Three pre-K classes will remain in northern Brunswick schools because no private classes are available for the students.

Additionally, Cahill said the middle school transition program has been repurposed to a 9th Grade Academy, which will be at Brunswick County Academy.

Cahill said that as yet there is no information to suggest the system might undergo the same kinds of cuts in state funding during the upcoming school year as it did in the last school year. If that happens, Cahill said the Brunswick system still has about $5.5 million in its fund balance to fill in any as yet unforeseen gaps.

The real problem, if it materializes, will come during the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2011, Cahill said.

This fiscal year, the system is funding 147 professional and support staff positions through what is left from stimulus funds. They could be at risk next year if no money comes to pay the salaries.

Steve Jones and Gina Vasselli contributed to this report.