Struggling with the funding cuts from the state, Columbia County's school board will soon approve a budget that is smaller than last year's, yet has to serve the equivalent of a whole school full of additional children.
Our school system already spends far below state average per pupil and ranks dead last in central-office costs, yet will serve more students next year and do it with less.
Putting together a $168 million budget is hard enough; it's tougher for professional educators aware that the only cuts left will start to have an impact on classroom instruction.
With the state recently deciding to remove all class-size limits next year, more students will be in each class - and, of course, there will be proportionately fewer teachers. That saves money, but school officials rightly worry that it means less individual attention for students.
As they've worked to keep from overloading class sizes and to ease other cuts, school officials occasionally have looked to the school system's surplus fund to bridge the gap.
But after taking $3 million from reserves to fill the deficit in next year's budget, the county still will have a surplus of $26 million.
For that reason, this is a good time to spell out just what this surplus is, and isn't. Lately, it seems, there's been an impression that the schools' surplus is a state requirement, and that it can't dip below 15 percent of the system's budget.
Actually, it's the opposite:
- First, school finance laws actually discourage creation of a surplus. "There shall be no fund or account in the nature of a 'surplus' or 'unobligated surplus' fund or account," the law reads.
- The law then provides this caveat: "Each local school system may... establish a single reserve fund or reserve account intended to cover unanticipated deficiencies in revenue or unanticipated expenditures, provided that the budget for any year shall not allocate to such reserve fund or reserve account any amounts which, when combined with the existing balance in such fund or account, exceed 15 percent of the year's total budget."
So: state law says school systems shouldn't even have surpluses - but if they do, it can't be more than 15 percent of their budget.
That says pretty plainly that Columbia County is under no legal requirement to be so protective of its surplus - and, in fact, in recent years the system has been in greater danger of hoarding too much in the fund rather than overspending it.
It's commendable that school officials are frugal in spending taxpayers' money. After all, they'd have to do some serious scrambling if the system's needs overwhelmed its bank account.
But there's nothing sacred about that surplus - especially at a time when classrooms are in danger of bursting at the seams.
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