Arlington school district weighs calendar change for one-time windfall

ARLINGTON -- School trustees quizzed the district's top budget official Thursday night about the possibility of switching to a different fiscal-year calendar, which could give the district a one-time windfall of $22 million.

In the alternative budget schedule, the year would begin July 1 instead of the traditional Sept. 1, creating a surplus on the accounting ledger because school districts collect 12 months of state and local funding but would have just 10 months of operating expenses to pay.

But that would happen only in the first year. Afterward, the fiscal year would have 12 months.

Cindy Powell, associate superintendent of finance, emphasized that the switch alone would not change the district's annual revenues and expenses in the following years.

Two board members called the proposal "smoke and mirrors," but they all agreed to consider voting at the Oct. 7 meeting on moving forward with the plan.

Powell said the board could change its mind later but that the staff needs time to prepare if a calendar switch is to be possible for fiscal 2012-13.

That would make next year -- fiscal 2011-12 -- the "conversion year" that would run only 10 months, from Sept. 1 to June 30.

The district would have to formally notify the Texas Education Agency by June 30.

Any funding boost would be welcomed. Last month the district approved its fourth consecutive budget containing an operating deficit.

Powell said there are other benefits to the July 1 fiscal schedule: A closer alignment with the school year would improve planning, because the budget would be completed well before the staff has to turn its attention to starting the next school year.

On the other hand, an early budget deadline would mean the district couldn't wait as long for updates on property valuations and late changes in state requirements for schools. It would likely have to amend its budgets more often.

Since the TEA made the early fiscal calendar an option in 2001, more than 140 school districts have made the change, including Fort Worth, Dallas, Birdville, Northwest and Burleson.

Powell told the board that in discussions with several of those districts and state officials, she heard almost no regret. The paperwork and planning needed for the change turned out to be less demanding than expected.

"The people we have talked to liked it," she said. "There were only a couple of districts that changed and went back."