Anniston City Schools officials expect the district’s general fund to end the upcoming fiscal year $1,043,228 in the red. But that’s a significant improvement from the previous year, which ended with a $1.33 million deficit.
The change means the school district is moving in the right direction toward building a state-mandated, one-month reserve. But it still has far to go, with the reserve target being about $1.5 million.
The budget projects the district’s total revenues to drop by more than $5.4 million, to $18.4 million, and expenses to drop by $5.6 million, to $18.3 million.
Anniston schools chief financial officer Jimmie Thompson presented the spending plan to the board Thursday during the first of two scheduled budget hearings.
Several residents who attended the hearing said they wanted a more simplified breakdown of where local funds were being spent. Thompson said he would draft something simpler and bring it to the second hearing, scheduled for Sept. 13 at 5 p.m.
Thursday’s meeting also included a work session for the board to discuss a strategic plan for the district. The plan’s items for building the one-month reserve included:
— reducing transportation costs
— reducing professional development costs
— creating a school consolidation plan
— creating a committee to search and apply for alternative funding sources.
During the budget hearing, Anniston attorney Donald Stewart asked the board about statements made during a recent City Council meeting that most of a $300,000 supplemental fund the city provided last year had been untouched by the school system.
Superintendent Darren Douthitt explained that while the system was not taking money from the fund itself, it was spending money on projects allowed under the terms of the fund. Those expenses were paid out of the district’s regular accounts, Douthitt said, because in previous years the city supplement had been paid to the district on a monthly basis. He said officials were unaware until recently that the city wasn’t reimbursing the district on those terms.
Stewart on Thursday also asked the superintendent why he or the board had not followed up on an offer from him and other community members months ago to help raise $500,000 for the district’s initiative to put laptops in the hands of every student.
“The best thing I can say is that we’re open to the opportunity to have anyone invest in what we're doing,” Douthitt said, offering to talk with Stewart after the meeting.
Stewart then asked about the use of learning centers that are allowing Anniston students to take an array of courses offered through a state virtual learning program. Stewart said his family donated more than $1 million to have the technology placed in every school in 2009.
Douthitt said he didn’t have specific numbers but that high school students are using the technology.
Stewart asked about the technology’s use by elementary and middle school students. Douthitt said state’s course offerings for middle and elementary school students are limited in the program.
Stewart said Calhoun County Schools has had success with a program that allows students to take courses online. He said if Anniston did the same, it would help with enrollment and save money that could be put toward the district’s reserve fund.
“It strikes me as sort of strange that we haven't approached that as aggressively as I would have had you do it,” Stewart said.
During a work session that followed the budget hearing, Rev. Freddy Rimpsey interrupted discussion to comment about a leasing agreement approved last month by the board.
The board in August approved a lease agreement allowing the Crawford Clinic to use a building on the Anniston High School campus for $1 a year.
Rimpsey said the board voted to approve the lease only after the clinic’s owners had moved into the facility. He said the district should charge more for rent considering the financial condition of the school system.
Speaking after the meeting, Douthitt said clinic did move into the building before the agreement was approved, but the agreement was discussed during a work session and though the board didn’t vote on it at the time, there was a general agreement among the members about the deal. As part of the agreement, the Crawford Clinic has students come in to get first-hand experience in the health care field.