County Schools poised for budget growth in 2014-15

By Mark Bell Contributing Writer

April 25, 2014

Following a year of financial cuts and administrative challenges, the Harlan County Board of Education began discussing more hopeful budget plans for the coming school year during Thursday’s special meeting.

Superintendent Mike Howard outlined his 2014-15 spending priorities for the board that include significant increases over recent years.

“Normally at this time of year, we’ve been looking at what we’re going to cut,” Howard said. “That’s not the case this year.”

Final numbers won’t be complete until the May meeting, the superintendent said, but the school district can expect to see funding increases that will allow for more spending on staff, materials and facilities in the coming year.

“One of the things that’s really helped us this year — something we were not planning on — has been the enrollment increases that we’ve had,” Howard noted.

While the financial numbers remain tentative, they are encouraging, he said. As a result of improved enrollment and attendance in the Harlan County district, SEEK funding (the state’s major formula for school dollars) has increased this year by more than $750,000. Current projections indicate it could increase another $400,000 during the upcoming year, he said.

“It has been a rough couple of years for us,” Howard told the board. “Now we are well on our way to be in much better shape as we begin to work on our budget for next year.

“I am well pleased with the way we’ve moved along,” he added. “I appreciate working with a board willing to make some tough decisions.”

Teacher raises mandated by the state are going to be covered, and Howard reported there would be a one percent raise for all employees. He also requested the board consider allowing two of the ten allowable sick days be used as personal days, provided state regulations permit it.

Howard recommended the board set aside $350,000 for the purchase of textbooks this coming year, noting the state also has some funding set aside for this, “for the first time in a long time,” he commented.

Under budget items known as “section six” and “discretionary funds,” which teachers often refer to as “instructional money,” Howard asked the board to approve allocating $200 per student for each site base council to spend as they saw fit. That is double the current amount, he said.

This money would come with the stipulation the council report back to the board at the end of the year and demonstrate how those funds were used to improve educational outcomes or the environment of the school.

In the past, schools have used those funds to purchase classroom supplies, to pay for librarian or assistant principal positions, and the like.

“I think we should let each school decide what works best for them instead of us deciding on a one-size-fits-all approach,” Howard said.

The superintendent will also recommend the board purchase five new buses at a cost of approximately $450,000. Currently, over half of the bus fleet is older than 14 years and are “totally depreciated out,” meaning they have no financial value and the state does not provide support funding for buses that are so old, he added.

A state advisor recently recommended Harlan County adopt a rotation of purchasing six new buses each year, with which they could take more advantage of state money to cover the depreciation of the vehicles. The current cost of school buses runs around $85,000 each, Howard said.

He recommended adding $20,000 to support the district-wide band program. All but one of the elementary schools currently includes band at the junior high level and Howard said he is concerned about the musical instruments. During the current year, he reminded the board he had to allocate funds from the maintenance department budget so some instrument repairs could be made.

With the return of some junior high athletic teams involving students from multiple schools, Howard said it would be appropriate to budget “a few thousand” so the cost of these programs doesn’t fall solely on the one school willing to sponsor them. He would provide a specific figure to the board when the formal budget was presented in May.

Finally, Howard said he wanted to “add some funds back into maintenance.” He estimated it would be in the range of $50,000 to be used for repairs and equipment.

Upon inquiry from board member Myra Mosley, the superintendent said the maintenance department had recently hired one additional employee and had another job opening posted. They are “looking at another couple of postings,” he added, provided they can find the right candidates to fill the jobs.