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Anniston school board members worry about federal money sent back unspent

Debate at city schools’ budget hearing

Anniston school board members pondered a proposed $23 million budget for the 2020 fiscal year Wednesday, but many on the board had more questions about how this year’s money was spent.

In particular, the board wanted to know if all the school system’s federal funding was spent —  and if not, why not.

“I’m concerned that the resources we do have are not highly effectively utilized for our students,” said board member Joan Frazier, who’s also a former superintendent of the school system.

School board members held a public hearing on the proposed budget Wednesday at the school board’s offices at Anniston Middle School.

The school system in recent years has had significant trouble making ends meet.School officials last year acknowledged that the school system didn’t have enough money on hand to keep up the state-required one-month reserve of operating funds.When new Superintendent Ray Hill interviewed for his job in April, the school system wasstill operating on what some school officials described as deficit spending.

The budget projections for 2020 seem to show a bright spot — a projected, if small, increase in students. The student body has declined from about 2,300 pupils in 2011 to roughly 1,900 expected this year, about 35 more than the school system had last year, according to budget documents distributed Wednesday.

Because some state money is distributed on a per-pupil basis, an increase could be good for Anniston’s finances. But chief financial officer Jimmie Thompson said the number may yet prove too high.

“The team is going to go out in the next week to physically count all the students,” Thompson said. He said the count was driven in part by concerns that the city’s school-age population may be down as a result of the demolition of the Cooper Homes public housing project.

Cooper was demolished in 2018 andmost of the residents had moved out by late 2016. Housing authority officials last week said that more than half the former residents are still in Anniston public housing complexes.

Thompson’s numbers show city schools spending around $23 million in 2020, including about $4.5 million in federal money. Board members said they were concerned that not enough of that federal money was spent hiring teachers. At Anniston High and Tenth Street Elementary, there wasn’t enough federal money set aside for a single full-time federally funded teaching position at either school.

“We should be spending that money, not sending money back to the federal government,” said school board president Robert Houston. Houston said that in past years, schools had done just that, failing to allocate all their federal money, thus placing more burden on local funding sources.

Hill, the superintendent, said after the meeting that he wasn’t sure exactly how much federal money was still unspent for the budget year that ends Sept. 30 — though he believed there was roughly $100,000 left in one federal program and $40,000 to $50,000 left in another.

“I’m hoping that that number’s going to be small,” Hill said. “We’re still checking. We have found out that some of it is money that we don’t actually have to send back.”

Thompson said federal money often comes with requirements about how it can be spent. Board members said the school system needs to do a better job of tracking federal money once it’s in Anniston.

“We haven’t been checking the checkers,” board member Mary Harrington said.

Thompson said there have been more frequent meetings of department heads to discuss spending since Hill came on board as superintendent.

The board plans a second budget hearing Sept. 12 at 5 p.m.


Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.