Facing a budget gap of more than $1 million in the general fund next year, Douglas County School District leaders are placing their faith in state lawmakers, and in their own ability to find savings, rather than in the mass layoffs that have come to characterize an entire era of recession.
“I don’t want to cut $1 million in jobs,” Superintendent Lisa Noonan said by phone Tuesday. “I feel like the climate in the Legislature is hopeful. If it turns out I read things incorrectly, then this summer we will have to find (the savings) in a variety of places.”
On Tuesday, school board members approved a 2013-14 tentative budget with an estimated total general fund of $50.2 million, including $442,001 in contingency funds and $1.94 million in unreserved ending fund balance.
In comparison, the current fiscal year’s total general fund budget is $52.3 million, including an estimated $2.66 million unreserved ending fund balance.
The difference between the two unreserved ending balances, roughly $718,000, stems from estimated underspending of 3.5-4 percent in the current year and will be used for expenditures next year.
But there’s still a shortfall, and once again district officials find themselves in the precarious position of building a tentative budget, as required by law, without knowing how state lawmakers will allocate resources for the upcoming biennium.
In previous years, projected shortfalls were so steep that dozens of layoffs were initiated to meet notification deadlines even when state funding remained unclear. The process typically led to “call backs” in the summer months, when finalized state numbers allowed many employees to be reinstated.
But the process itself was painful. Many young teachers without seniority were laid off on multiple occasions — called back one summer only to be laid off again the following spring.
This year, the district is grappling with both declining enrollment and falling property tax revenues. Because of the state’s hold harmless provision, the district is using current weighted enrollment of 5,901 pupils to calculate state funding instead of next year’s projected weighted enrollment of 5,752.
By allowing districts to use previous enrollment figures, the provision effectively delays funding reductions for a year, assuming the downward trend continues.
Noonan hopes that attrition in the workforce will cover any staffing reductions necessitated by enrollment.
“The hard fact is that we don’t know the final revenues,” she said. “It’s discouraging but not the end of the story. Many bills being considered could increase funding. My hope is that the Legislature is going to increase its investment in education.”
Any revisions to the tentative budget will be made and reviewed at the final budget hearing at 5 p.m. May 15 at Douglas High School in Minden.