August 4, 2014

School budget figures need another look

Fort Worth school Trustee Ann Sutherland is raising alarms about the district’s financial reserves dropping perilously low, and she’s right.

Fort Worth school Trustee Ann Sutherland is raising alarms about the district’s financial reserves dropping perilously low, and she’s right.

Other school board members should pay attention.

On June 24, Sutherland was the only board member to vote against the district’s $696.7 million budget for the 2014-15 school year, which includes $16.5 million to pay for 3 percent salary increases.

“I believe the spending level is unsustainable,” Sutherland said.

Projections presented to the board by district staff experts illustrate her point. The district will spend more than it’s expected to take in during each of the next three years.

That’s possible because the district has built up a large “fund balance” of money unspent in previous years and held in reserve.

But fund balance isn’t just extra money. It’s essential to have cash in reserve to pay bills during the first three or four months of the school year, when daily expenses are high but revenue lags because people haven’t yet paid their property tax bills.

The current Fort Worth school district fund balance is $182 million, with the start of the 2014-15 school year just around the corner.

But the district expects to spend $29.3 million more than it will take in during the year, reducing reserves accordingly.

And spending is expected to exceed revenue by $51.2 million in 2015-16 and $46.6 million in 2016-17.

As Sutherland said, spending more than you make is not sustainable.

Budget projections show the fund balance dropping to $54.8 million at the end of the 2016-17 school year.

Now things have taken a turn for the worse.

The district disclosed Friday that it must repay between $37 million and $39 million to the state for inflating its numbers of students in bilingual and English as a Second Language programs. State education funding is based primarily on the number of students served.

The repayment will come out of reserves by the end of the next school year, said interim Superintendent Pat Linares.

Anticipated state income must be recalculated. The reduction could be $10 million to $13 million a year.

All of this has a ripple effect. Sutherland estimates that reserves could run dry during the 2016-17 school year.

Other trustees have agreed that current spending plans are unsustainable, but they say spending adjustments in future years will keep the fund balance healthy.

“The board must adopt a new budget as soon as possible,” Sutherland wrote in a letter to the Star-Telegram Editorial Board. Fund balance reserves should be maintained at $60 million to $70 million, she added.

At the least, the board must take another look at fund balance projections in light of the required repayment to the state. If budget adjustments are required, the time to get started is now.

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