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Calhoun County Board of Education building. Photo by Trent Penny

A shrinking student body and a state-mandated teacher pay raise could lead to tough 2020 budget decisions for Calhoun County’s school board, school staff said at a budget hearing Thursday.

The school system expects to have 8,295 students in fiscal 2020, down 143 from last year’s total. That means the state will pay for five fewer teachers in the coming school year, said John Godwin, the school system’s chief financial officer.

“These units, if we choose to retain them, they’ll be retained as locally funded units,” Godwin said.

Godwin gave school board members an overview of the proposed $99.9 million spending plan Thursday at the board’s central office, in the first of two planned budget hearings. Like other local governments, the county school system needs to have a budget in place by October, when the fiscal year begins.

Godwin’s proposed budget has the school system taking in about $98 million in 2020, and spending about a million more than that. That’s typical for the school system, which in the past year has filed budgets with deficits — but using revenue projections that turned out to be on the conservative end. School officials expect to end the current budget year with an $18 million reserve on hand.

But even in good financial times, school budgeting can be tricky. Much of the state’s school funding is doled out on a per-pupil basis, and Calhoun County’senrollment has been on a downward trend in recent years. The county’s overallpopulation has declined since 2010, according to the Census Bureau, andan aging population has led to declining enrollment statewide, state officials have said.

The Legislature mandated a 4 percent pay raise for teachers earlier this year, which means that even if the county were to cut five teaching positions, it would likely fork out more for payroll in the coming year. Godwin’s budget predicts the county will pay $29.2 million for salaries in 2020 compared to $28.2 this year.

Godwin said increases in other areas could free up the money to keep the current number of teachers — though that would limit the amount the system could spend for other purposes.

One board member, Debbie Hess, said after the hearing that there was no plan to cut teacher positions. But board members didn’t discuss the issue at length after Godwin’s briefing. Board president Tobi Burt said the board would need to look at the numbers closely before the second hearing.

“This is going to be a lot of couch time,” Burt said, referring to two bound budget documents.

Closing the budget hearing, the board moved into a work session to discuss a proposal to hire a system-wide athletics director for county schools. Burt said the session was held largely at the request of board member Jeff Winn, a former high school coach.

Brandon Dean, the Alabama High School Athletics Association’s assistant director for baseball, told the board that an athletics director position could take pressure off principals in hiring and firing decisions. Dean once worked as athletics director for Montgomery schools.

“There must be some power lent to the AD to hire and fire,” Dean said. “To me, to see a coach go 2-and-20 every year and not getting fired because they know the principal, that was my issue.”

Ken Storey, former athletics director for Jefferson County Schools, said an athletics director could “be the bad guy” in decisions to discipline or fire a coach. He described a number of other duties that fell to an athletics director, including responsibility for security at games and trademarking of school logos so schools can get revenue from school-themed merchandise that’s already being sold without school approval.

“It’s very frustrating to go into Wal-Mart and see them selling your school’s logo,” he said.

Board member Lisa Amerson asked if an athletics director would take the place of compliance officers at school — essentially coaches who are tasked with making sure all of the school’s athletes are eligible to play. Storey and Dean said no. School staff said the stipend for a compliance officer is around $3,000 per season.

Board members didn’t discuss a possible salary for an athletics director, and took no action on the proposal.

The board will hold a second budget hearing Sept. 19.

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

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