Unknowns abound in School Board’s next budget

  • Posted: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 12:04 a.m.
STAFF PHOTO BY ROB NOVIT
Aiken School Board members Tad Barber, left, and Keith Liner confer on budget issues for 2013-14 that will be discussed over the next four months.
STAFF PHOTO BY ROB NOVIT Aiken School Board members Tad Barber, left, and Keith Liner confer on budget issues for 2013-14 that will be discussed over the next four months.

For many years the Aiken County School District has depended on carryover funds from the year before to provide sufficient allocations for a variety of instructional needs – especially if the state or federal governments have imposed budget cuts.

That practice has become more difficult to maintain, and the district is getting close to exhausting it as the 2013-14 school year approaches.

“I’m not as optimistic as I was last year,” said School Board Vice Chairman Ray Fleming at a budget meeting Tuesday.

But he readily agreed that the district’s comptroller, Tray Traxler, had a good point during his presentation.

“It’s still too early,” Traxler said. “Just like every year, we’ll look at changes throughout the legislative process. It’s always a moving target.”

The infamous sequestration possibility still looms over states throughout the nation in many areas – with education potentially a huge loss of federal funds if Congress fails take any action to at least delay the automatic trigger of eliminating $85 billion in spending.

Even if Congress finds a way to put off sequestration, the Aiken School District still has potential funding issues that will need to be resolved.

The S.C. General Assembly could require districts to pay “step” increases to teachers, Traxler said. The district’s portions of retirement funding and health insurance premiums are also likely to increase, Traxler said.

The school district currently receives federal funding through Title I that helps provide 26 reading interventionists. Any loss in those funds and many others in both state and federal allocations could force School Board members to choose priorities.

During the recession, the state legislature reduced base student cost appropriation to just over $1,600 per pupil – a level dating back roughly to the 1995-1996 year. Last year, State Superintendent Mick Zais sought $1,880 per pupil.

However, legislators agreed to fund $2,012 as a way to provide $36 million to the 85 school districts.

That amount was intended to make up for a penalty imposed by the U.S. Education office – a decision that came after the General Assembly had failed to provide sufficient special education funding of its own.

Zais had proposed returning to the $1,800 base student cost, but the S.C. House is already looking at maintaining the existing amount. Even the higher funding amount only equals the level allocated no later than 2002-03, based on the General Assembly’s own funding formula.

It’s still unknown if lawmakers will continue to make up the $36 million allocation, “but a workshop in Columbia could provide an update from the State Department,” Traxler said. “They’ll let us know at that time whether to count on it or not.”

A loss of that allocation would cost the district around $1 million.

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