Duerring: Kanawha school budget forecast gloomy
Kanawha County Schools faces a $4.5 million budget deficit the first day of the 2014 fiscal year, if current funding practices remain the same.
It only gets worse, according to a presentation Superintendent Ron Duerring gave Thursday night to the school board. By the end of 2018 fiscal year, the county could be close to $7.3 million in the hole.
Duerring presented the information to give board members a heads up about where the county stands financially. He presented a 17-page document, but after the meeting he said it boils down to this: costs are expected to continue to rise, and revenue isn't expected to increase.
"We have taken about every avenue we can within our means that we're able to do to increase revenues in the system," Duerring said after the meeting.
That includes closing between 25 and 30 schools in the 15 years Duerring has been superintendent, he said. Other schools were consolidated, a new safety program saved a couple million dollars and the county increased the amount of federal reimbursement it requested for Medicaid expenses. But federal funds are drying up while maintenance, utilities are going up, he said.
At the start of the 2014 fiscal year, the amount of money the county receives from property taxes is going to change. In May of this year, Kanawha County voters approved a new rate for the school system's excess levy, an additional property tax counties can use to bolster its bank account.
In the past, the county capped the percent of the levy rate. That means it couldn't receive more than a certain percent of funds from assessed property in the county. However, with more property or changing property values, the amount of money the school system could receive could -- and did -- increase.
The new levy rate caps the amount of money the county can receive at roughly $44.2 million.
After the levy passed, Duerring and county treasurer Harry Reustle said it would make budgeting tougher. Thursday night, Duerring agreed that the cap on the levy makes budgeting more difficult moving forward.
During Duerring's presentation, Reustle said the numbers are "a taste, a glance, a glimpse of what I call a default future." That means its what would happen if the board and county do nothing, he explained.
Pete Thaw, president of the Kanawha County board, is an ardent and long-time supporter of the levy cap. He said the presentation was meant to scare people, but he's not afraid. More money at hand generally means more expenditures, he argued. He thinks it's time for the county to spend less.
"We're going to have to cut out the cotton candy, and get down to the meat and potatoes," Thaw said. "I've been told for years we can't do this, we can't do that, we don't have the money. Well we built two schools in this county in the last three years with no bond issue. Go figure."
Those schools -- Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary and the Edgewood-area elementary school -- were built with more than $15 million from the state School Building Authority. Recently, the authority has expressed its displeasure with Kanawha County's cap, and threatened to not fund future projects.
Board member Becky Jordon thinks the authority might be done for a while. She drew that conclusion after attending a recent School Building Authority meeting. The board has been critical of Kanawha for capping its levy and limiting the amount of money it could bring in.
Thaw quickly pointed out it still gave $750,000 for an addition to John Adams Middle School and an additional $1 million for the Edgewood project.
The school system approves travel expenses for employees to go to events all over the country, Thaw said. It's an expense he consistently questions, and one of many he thinks can be cut in order to make thinks meet.
He has repeatedly said he has full confidence in Duerring's ability to find a way to balanced the budget, calling him a "wizard" on several occasions.
But Duerring said when it comes to additional revenue he might have run out of magic.
"We're going to have to take a look at the system," Duerring said, adding students, parents and teachers will see changes immediately if additional revenue can't be found.
"We're going to have to see what is it that we're doing... and say we're expending this money for this, are we getting the biggest bang for our buck, is it hitting enough children? And if not, maybe that's a program we no longer want."
In the May election more than 66 percent of Kanawha Count voters approved the new excess levy rate. It would take another vote by Kanawha County voters to remove the cap. Thaw thinks that is unlikely. Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or email@example.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.