Anniston High School

Students at Anniston High School earlier this month. (Trent Penny/The Anniston Star/file) 

Information reported during a budget hearing last week reveals finances for Anniston City Schools are moving in the right direction. But it also revealed there’s a long way to go before the bottom line can be considered healthy.

The system’s general fund for the upcoming fiscal year is projected to have a $1.04 million deficit.

How is that considered moving in the right direction, you ask?

Because the deficit last year was $1.33 million.

Even if the school system was handed a million dollars tomorrow, it would still be around $1.5 million short of the state-mandated one-month reserve.

Meanwhile, climbing out of the hole and closing the gap gets tougher by the year. Enrollment has been on the decline, which means funding is declining. In fact, revenue is projected to drop this year by more than $5.4 million, to $18.4 million, according to a report by The Star’s Daniel Gaddy.

The school system’s strategic plan for achieving the one-month reserve includes reducing transportation costs; reducing professional-development costs; creating a school consolidation plan; and creating a committee to search and apply for alternative funding sources.

A separate funding issue raised during the budget discussion involved annual appropriations from the City of Anniston.

Because of questions about how the system uses its funding, the city asked Superintendent Darren Douthitt for plans on how a $100,000 city allocation will be spent. City Manager Jay Johnson told the council at Tuesday’s meeting that Douthitt had not yet responded.

Of particular interest to the council was a $340,000 education supplement the council gave the school system last year that remains in the bank, largely untouched.

“Do y’all know how much we fought over that $350,000,” Councilman David Reddick said. “We quit talking to each other for three months after that, and it’s still sitting in our bank account.”

Douthitt said during the budget hearing that money had been spent in light of the supplement, but that the school system in previous years had received the supplement in monthly stipends. School officials, he said, were unaware until recently that the city was no longer reimbursing the school system on those terms.

Anniston attorney Donald Stewart raised several other questions during the hearing related to funding for the school system, including why Douthitt and the board had not followed up on community offers to help raise $500,000 for laptops, and how the school system is using distance-learning technology the Stewart family donated more than $1 million to fund.

Douthitt said the board is open to any efforts to invest in the school system. While he didn’t have specific numbers, the high schoolers are taking advantage of distance learning but that programs are limited for elementary and middle-school students, he said.

Many of the funding questions might be answered with the completion of a long-anticipated audit of the system’s finances. The council decided without a vote last week not to give any of this year’s $100,000 supplement to the school board until the audit is released.

City officials have been waiting since April for the audit to be completed and said they’ve been told the accounting firm needs to return to do more field work.

This is not a good sign.

Because of a school system’s impact — not only on its students, but also on a community’s ability to recruit business and industry and retain talent — the financial health of Anniston City Schools should be everyone’s concern and the school board’s top priority.

Stay tuned.