County school officials fear more state cuts

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 21, 2001

Staff Writer

Jan. 20, 2001 10 PM

Pike County Schools Superintendent John Key is wondering what’s next.

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Earlier in the school year, the Pike County Board of Education was forced to cut personnel before approving a $15.6 million budget.

The county was forced to cut 5.88 teacher units and make some maintenance cuts to come up with a budget the state would approve.

Key said it was "a number of unfunded mandates" that forced the school system to cut costs where they were able.

Cuts in personnel came in because the state forced school boards to give teachers a raise, but didn’t give them any more money with which to do so.

Now, Key is facing one of the most frightening words of school administrators ­ proration ­ and the impact on his schools.

During a meeting in Montgomery this past week, Key and other school superintendents were told to expect proration to be declared by Gov. Don Siegelman in the next few weeks.

"Essentially, they said proration is a certainty," Key said.

The Education Trust Fund was last prorated in fiscal year 1992. At that time, a 3 percent cut was made.

Key said each percentage point would be worth about $94,000.

If proration is indeed declared, as anticipated, the county schools will likely "have to cut some of the bone out," Key said. "We’ve already cut the fat."

One of the things that could result in proration is that tax collections for the Education Trust Fund dropped 2 percent in October through December, which was the first three months of the budget year, compared to the same period the previous budget year. The drop comes while the budget was boosted by about 4.5 percent from $4.1 billion to $4.3 billion.

Key said Alabama is losing a minimum of $200 per year because of Internet and catalog sales and the lack of taxation on those sales.

"We can’t continue to lose that amount," Key said.

In the meantime, school superintendents are waiting.

"We were advised to make all the cuts we can," Key said, adding those have been made.

Superintendents have also been told they should have at least a month’s worth of money in reserve, which would be about $1 million for Pike County schools.

"We, by far, don’t have that," Key said.

His biggest concern is the school system will have to borrow money in order to pay operating expenses.

"I worry we will eventually have to go to the bank and borrow money to make our obligations," Key said.

"From now until October, it’s going to be tough."

Key said unfunded mandates and "irresponsible leadership" on the state level has made it more difficult to devise a workable budget for the school system.

He said when legislators voted to increase teacher pay, they were told it would likely lead to proration.

One way that could change, he said is by local money increasing since most of the state money is earmarked ­ by the State Department of Education ­ before it ever gets to Pike County and federal funds are also obligated to be spent on certain items.