Traveling just got a little easier for students of Harlan County Schools.
During their regular monthly meeting Tuesday evening, the board of education lowered the cost of using the district’s buses from $2.39 per mile to $1.50.
School groups must have the money to pay that rate to the district’s transportation department for every trip they make using school buses.
“With this rate, we will be able to cover our fuel costs,” said Superintendent Mike Howard, “and it will really help our schools.”
At the urging of state officials, the board had raised the mileage rate several years ago and the hardships created since then have affected academic and athletic teams, student musical performances, and even elementary field trips, he noted.
Some athletic teams do not generate enough money at their games to pay the expense and that creates even more of a financial hardship on booster clubs and families who must engage in fundraising activities just so their kids can be involved in school-based activities, Howard added.
“Several teams don’t have enough money for uniforms and other things they need because it’s all going into transportation,” Howard told the board.
Even local travel - taking primary students to the movies or older kids out to eat as a reward for performance - has been restricted over the past few years because of the increased costs.
The district had recently received a letter from Pine Mountain Settlement School noting the decreased use of their educational facilities and renowned environmental resources by local teachers and students.
The original intent by the state apparently was to finance as much of the cost of transportation as possible within the district (vehicle maintenance, depreciation, etc.) through an increased mileage rate, Howard told the board.
All other districts in the region he contacted had done the same at the time but have since rescinded the rate hike and mostly returned to their prior rates, he added.
“I just feel for our kids,” Howard said. “It’s something we need to do.”
In other financial matters, the board is looking at the possibility of enjoying small surpluses as they prepare their end-of-year balances. Howard asked the board to begin discussing how best to deal with it.
He recommended discretion be given to each school’s site base council in how those funds might be used since the surpluses will vary by school.
It will be next month until any action can be taken, Howard reminded the board, because the current legislative session must end before school districts will have their final budgets for next year. The potential for other unknown costs required by the state’s requirements and budget targets remains, but the board should have a clearer idea by April, he said.
Chairman Gary Farmer noted the possibility the district will be required to cover the cost of mandated raises for certified staff that may not be fully funded by the state. The district is also now required to pay a small percentage of the cost of teacher retirement, which had not been required in years past.
“One thing I can tell you, we’re in better shape than we were last year,” Howard declared. “We’re not going to need to make any cuts.”
As schools are funded largely based on student attendance, the board also reviewed enrollment and attendance data for the current year in anticipation of planning their budget for the 2014-15 school year.
Six months since school began, overall enrollment in Harlan County Schools has dropped from 4,196 students from the tenth day to 4,087 now. However, this is typical and compares favorably to the last couple of years.
In 2011-12, enrollment after six months stood at 4,013. Last year it was 4,092. Attendance in the district is also holding steady at slightly more than 92 percent each of the past three years, though it remains below 90 percent at the high school, which is also typical.
The recent stability in enrollment and attendance numbers has helped make it a little easier to manage the district’s finances over the period, but Howard told the board it would still be wise to expect some decline in enrollment over the next few years.
“With all the talk around the community about the economy and loss of jobs,” Howard said, it’s hard to see how it won’t show up in the schools eventually.