Superintendent Dr. Frank Petruzielo presented recommendations for next year’s budget that would lower taxes, restore some programs, provide for raises and hire more teachers and lower class size. The recommendations were made at a conference session held before the school board meeting Thursday.
Petruzielo said there were six main funds in the annual school district budget, the largest being the general, or operating fund, set at $322 million for next fiscal year. In the general fund, 67 percent of the budgeted funds go toward classroom instruction.
Other funds include: debt service ($51 million), capital projects ($89 million), state and federal grants ($12 million), school food service ($19 million) and other funds ($2 million).
The 2014-15 budget — or the fiscal 2015 budget — begins July 1 and runs to June 30, 2015. An executive summary of the budget will be made public June 19.
At the budget conference Thursday, Petruzielo said Cherokee residents could expect a reduction of 0.4 mills on their property tax bills next year — a decrease of $2.5 million total.
Before the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax was an option for the district to fund construction of new schools, Petruzielo explained, the district collected money through a General Obligation Bond.
Since the bond debt is scheduled to be repaid in full this year, Petruzielo said “as promised to the voters and property owners of Cherokee County,” the 0.4 mills associated with the bond can be removed from property tax bills.
At Thursday’s budget conference, Petruzielo made a number of new recommendations — in part, because the district is expected to see a return of $7 million in state funding lost when cuts were made beginning in 2008, after the economic downturn.
While $7 million will make a difference for the school district, Petruzielo said that there is a long way to go.
“We very much appreciate going down from $24 million of the QBE funding that we were entitled to and did not receive, to $17 million,” Petruzielo said. “We hope the state continues to go down next year.”
In the 2008-09 fiscal year, state funding cuts more than tripled from the previous year, resulting in a loss of $11 million in state funding to the Cherokee School District just after the economic downturn.
The next year, in 2009-10, state cuts skyrocketed to $31 million, hovering around $25 million each of the next four years.
In 2013-14, the district saw $24.8 million in state cuts.
For the first time in five years, the district will see state cuts of less than $25 million, with an expected $17.6 million in cuts for the 2014-15 fiscal year.
New recommendations made Thursday included: implementing an automated substitute teacher scheduling system to streamline the process; pilot a new entry door security system in one of the district’s innovation zones; update the emergency parent notification system for phone, text and email; fund longevity step pay increases for eligible employees; consider a small cost of living raise for all employees; and use any remaining funds to further reduce class sizes and begin restoring the district’s reserve fund.
Petruzielo also recommended the district reinstate an initiative similar to graduation coaches, which were removed when state funding for the program was cut.
Petruzielo said reports showed the graduation coach initiative had great results on the county’s graduation rate, and although state funding for the program has not been restored, he recommended reinstating a similar program.
“It was a priority for the board to continue efforts to increase the graduation rate,” Petruzielo said. “We believe that this is a good model and it deserves support.”
The new initiative will provide for a one-half teacher allotment at each of the district’s six high schools, meaning a teacher will teach for half the day and act as a graduation coach for the other half.
The teacher charged with the position will spend half their time dedicated to helping high school students with credit recovery, and helping students stay on track for graduation.
In April, Petruzielo made some preliminary recommendations for the fiscal 2015 budget, which were also included in the tentative budget presentation Thursday.
The recommendations were: hiring 49 additional teachers to lower class sizes in primary grade levels; restore school nurses to six-hour days; restore school police staffing levels to reflect growth; add 10 bus drivers to manage growth and improve efficiency; and restoring the three remaining employee furlough days.
The final recommended budget will be published online on the district website a week before the board votes on the budget, which is set to happen at its July 23 meeting.