Arlington school district's 2009-10 shortfall may be less than expected

ARLINGTON -- The 2009-10 school district budget that started with a projected $12.1 million operating deficit could end the year with just a $3.4 million shortfall, thanks to unexpected revenue and accounting changes, school trustees were told Monday night.

The rosier projections came during a school board discussion of the preliminary $437 million budget for fiscal 2011. Officials said the district still faces financial challenges from falling property values and state funding constraints.

Next year's budget includes the fourth consecutive operating deficit for the district -- $8.4 million, although that's a little better compared with the $12.1 million shortfall at the start of the current fiscal year.

The upbeat news for fiscal 2010 was the result of about $4.7 million in unexpected revenue. The district received a late $1.1 million payment from Medicaid for program expenses from a previous year, and $3.6 million in additional state funding from a surprise bump in daily attendance.

Also, $3.6 million in the high school allotment fund for college readiness programs now will be rolled into the general fund, where it technically counts as part of the reserve fund that is being used to cover deficits. But the allotment is earmarked exclusively for those academic programs.

The preliminary fiscal 2011 budget is about $1.6 million smaller than the fiscal 2010 budget adopted last summer. It includes a reduction of 17 teaching and 19 teaching assistant positions based in part on enrollment fluctuations and instruction changes in some programs.

Cindy Powell, associate superintendent for finance, said no one was fired or laid off as a result of those cuts.

Overall, enrollment is projected to grow by just 136 students next year to 63,623. The district has about 4,100 teachers. No raises are in the budget.

The district's property tax rate is $1.272 per $100 of assessed value. Officials don't expected an increase in the maintenance and operations part of the rate, which is $1.04, but they do plan to raise the debt-service rate, now at 23.2 cents, to start paying the $197.5 million bond approved by voters in November.

The district had projected that the bond package would require a 5-cent rate increase, but declining property values may require a larger increase, Powell said.