So. Fulton Faces Budget Shortfalls
Nearly 50 Southern Fulton School District citizens and taxpayers attended a presentation on the district’s current financial status as well as the projected short and long-term status. District Superintendent Kendra Trail presented a nearly onehour “State of the District” program and then took questions from the audience for an additional 30 minutes.
Trail opened the presentation by pointing out that there has been a 9.2 percent increase in unemployment in Fulton County since 2005. She followed that up by saying that 76.8 percent of families living in Fulton County live within 300 percent of federal poverty level.
Much like all school districts across the country and specifically in Pennsylvania, the economic downturn has created a financial crisis in the public school system. Trail said that several factors contribute to high costs for the school district, including the Pa. Public School Employment Retirement System, employee healthcare costs, special and alternative education, transportation and charter/ cyber schools.
She said that while the district has no plans to build any new facilities at this time, many aspects of the buildings are reaching a 20-year mark and will be costly to replace or upgrade. The elementary school was built in 1993. The high school was built in 1960 and remodeled in 1993. The district has an enrollment of approximately 900 students, and Trail said the enrollment has remained steady over the past 10 years. She said the purpose of the feasibility study being conducted is to provide a basis from which a plan can be created that contains short-, mid-, and long-term goals to address the needs of the district.
Trail discussed a six-year budget forecast that set spending at just under $12 million for the 2010-11 school year, with that cost rising to slightly over $14 million for the 2015-16 school year. She said, “At the current time, it is estimated that the district will face a shortfall of $2.2 million for the 2014-15 school year, so we have tough decisions to make.” The shortfall for the current year is projected at $830,000. Revenues for school operations come from a mixture of federal, state and local (school taxes) funds. For example, in 2009-10, revenues included approximately $6.5 million in state funds, $1 million in federal funds and $3.5 million in local funding. Trail said the district expects to lose $500,000 per year in state funding under the new governor’s budget and will also likely lose about $330,000 in early childhood state grants. In spite of the fact that state and federal funding are predicted to decrease, the Act 1 tax-relief effort limits school districts’ ability to raise taxes by more than 4.2 percent in the 2010-11 year and 2 percent in the 2011-12 year. So the end result is that raising taxes to the limit for next year would mean a .4626 mil, which would bring in only an additional $67,012 to the district. The millage increase would mean an increase of about $18.83 per year for the average taxpayer.
Trail said school contributions to the retirement system are expected to double every three years through the 2016-17 school year, going from just under $300,000 in 2010-11 to more than $1.4 million in the 2016-17 year.
Healthcare costs for the same years are projected to rise from about $1.25 million in 2010-11 to slightly over $2 million in the 2015-16 year.
Special education annual costs that were $629,000 in 2003 are $1.4 million today as schools comply with the Individuals With Disabilities Act (IDEA). The district has 10 teachers, nine paraprofessionals, a part-time psychologist and other contracted services to provide services to about 135 students.
The school district also sends students to three different alternative educations programs, including Nulton Diagnostic in Bedford, the Meadows in Chambersburg and Extended Family Academy in Mc- Connellsburg. The alternative education programs are designed for students experiencing mental health and/or behavioral problems. Transportation is also provided for these students.
Approximately 20 students attend charter schools at a cost to the district of about $7,100 per student and up to $13,000 if the child has special needs. The “No Child Left Behind” law requires schools to make adequate yearly progress (AYP), and Trail pointed out that while both Southern Fulton high and elementary schools achieved AYP, Agora, Commonwealth Connections and Tuscarora Blended Charter School did not. Charter schools in the 2009-10 school year cost the district $130,000. Trail also said that if proposed Senate Bill 1 passes, any student who receives free lunches will, by year three, be able to receive a voucher to attend any public or private school of the parent’s choice, resulting in a further loss of revenue for the district.
Bonds coming due from building projects and renovations include $485,000 in 2013, $1,035,000 each in years 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 and $560,000 in year 2018. Trail explained they would be paid using a special tax stabilization fund created for paying the incurred debt.
Trail concluded her presentation by saying “We have a good school district with exceptional staff who always put kids first – I never saw a more dedicated, more professional staff.”
She then took questions from the audience that largely centered on the charter cyber schools and how they are regulated. Trail said the school district has absolutely no control over the schools except for attendance.
Another question asked was how the future projections were made given that teachers are still in negotiations over a contract. The school board rejected a factfinders report twice in December 2010, and has stuck with their offerofa1percentpayincrease over each year of the contract while the union was asking for 5.25 percent annually over the length of the three-year contract. Trail said the board had used the annual 1 percent pay increases offered to forecast the budget.