Anniston’s city school board voted 5-0 Thursday to approve a $23 million budget for city schools for 2020 — a sign that school staff have calmed board members’ fears about federal money left unspent. 

“It’s good to come into a situation where you don’t know everything, because when you don’t know everything, you dig,” said Robert Houston, president of the Anniston Board of Education. 

Houston and other board members met Thursday at the board’s central office for a second hearing on the school system’s proposed budget. The hearing comes on the heels of a meeting last week in which board members took school officials to task for seemingly not spending all the federal money at their command. 

Board members have been sharply critical of the system’s budgets since at least last year, when they learned that Anniston schools didn’t have the state-required one month’s worth of reserve funds on hand. Financial management was one of the biggest topics of discussion when board members interviewed potential superintendents earlier this year, eventually hiring current Superintendent Ray Hill. 

The school system gets 22 percent of its money from federal programs, many of them set up to help high-poverty communities. Board members grew frustrated last week when they learned that there’s not a single federally funded full-time teacher position at either Anniston High or Tenth Street Elementary. At the time, Hill said he believed there might be $100,000 in federal money still unspent for this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. 

When the board convened Thursday, chief financial officer Jimmie Thompson had a powerpoint about federal funding queued up on a laptop. Federal programs director Marlon Jones was on hand to discuss federal spending. Little had changed in the actual budget proposal. But board members passed the budget with a minimum of debate. 

“We’ve spent it all,” Thompson said after the meeting. He said that on further examination, many of the complaints brought up by the board turned out to be about unspent funds from earlier budget years, particularly in the Title I program for high-poverty schools. He said he didn’t know why money went unused in those years, but that there’s no leftover money this year. 

The biggest change in the 2020 budget is a $447,823 increase in spending on salaries, due to a 4 percent pay raise the Alabama Legislature approved earlier this year — an increase funded by the state. 

Schools could also see a little more state funding because the system, on paper at least, has more students than it did last year. Anniston’s student population has been in steep decline for years, but the system goes into 2020 with an estimated average attendance of 1,910 students, up 25 students from the previous budget year. 

Thompson said the 1910 estimate is based on counts done in the last school year. He’s still unsure why the number seemed to go up, he said, but a count underway now has found only about 1,800 students — meaning the numbers could drop sharply for the 2021 budget.

“That’s making my graying hair get thinner,” Thompson said. 

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