No sooner had the Franklin County School Board welcomed a new member and organized itself for the new year when the five members faced the stark reality of an extremely tight budget situation not even halfway through the 2012-13 fiscal year.

After detailing a drop of hundreds of thousands of dollars in anticipated revenue, and an unsustainable fund balance down to a mere $114,000 in unrestricted funds, Finance Director Shannon Venable made it clear at last week’s Nov. 20 meeting the situation was serious.

“Making these adjustments, we have a negative fund balance,” she said. “We won’t have enough to pay our bills this year.”

Venable said the district will have to respond to a $563,000 loss in property tax revenues, the result of a 6 percent drop in July at the first certification, and another 7 percent decline after the final certification in October.

She said another adjustment she has had to make is in miscellaneous state revenue, which was budgeted at $95,000 for the 2012-13 fiscal year, even though the district last year received only $3,000 in this category.

Gone is $95,945 in discretionary operating funds, as well as $80,000 in BP funds that the district received early on following the April 2010 oil spill, Venable said. One of the only bright spots in the revenue picture was that the district will now be able to recoup from the food service program about $30,000 in utility costs, she said.

An ongoing preliminary audit is showing $36,000 in disallowed capital project money, which are monies that had been allocated from the 1.5-mill capital outlay funds for maintenance, but which were never spent.

“This is the first year it’s happened,” said Venable. “It’s because we didn’t spend enough on our maintenance allocation in our general fund.”

The finance director also told the board that retirement corrections need to be made on payments for two board members, one previous and one current, as well as a reimbursement to Tax Collector Jimmy Harris for property tax adjustments for over assessments. These two items total $65,000.

Lastly, Venable said expenditures for the operation of the school’s physical plant will likely run about $110,000 over what is currently set aside in the budget.

“I estimate about one million dollars that for one reason or another has gone away,” said Gander.

To cope with the situation, Marks said she wrote an Aug. 29 letter to the state, and that together with Venable, has met with state education officials who work with school finance.

“They gave us some suggestions,” said Marks. “They want us in close contact. They are willing to work with us and made some suggestions. They want us to do what we can; this is going to be an ongoing process for Franklin County.

“They were very receptive about helping Franklin County,” she said.

“They’re going to give us some money?” asked Thompson.

“We have to find it,” replied Marks.

Marks shared with the school board a list of $411,000 in possible budget reductions for the second semester, plus an estimated $211,000 in additional revenue if a plan to develop affordable housing adjacent to the former Apalachicola High School goes through.

The plan, proposed by Leon Bloodworth, requires approval by both the school board and Apalachicola city commission, as well as funding support next year by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. If it comes to fruition, and agreement can be reached on the sale price for the land, the northwest corner of the high school tract could see the creation of 44 moderate priced units in the months to come.

The largest chunk of Marks’ cost-saving recommendations is $213,000, through the reduction of eight staff positions at the Franklin County Schools main campus, and $86,000 through the cutback of five positions at the branch campus in Eastpoint where the pre-Kindergarten, Learning Academy and Alternative School are housed.

Marks did not outline details of the proposed cuts but said they would not all be teachers. “We’re trying real hard to hang on to the instructional part,” she said. “It would not take out totally any programs, it would take out pieces of programs.”

Venable told the school board that labor costs take out about $5.2 million from the general fund, and benefits another $1.5 million.

Teachers were expected today to consider a plan that has emerged from contract negotiations that would see staffers, depending on salary, to take between and 1 and 3 percent pay cut.

Other of Marks’ recommended cuts would be $35,000 for reorganizing bus transportation to Carrabelle locations, $33,000 by removing the district-funded dental coverage, and $14,000 by reducing the transportation foreman to a part-time position.

Marks also announced plans to shut down district facilities during Christmas week to realize savings to utility costs.

Al London, director of auxiliary services, told the school board that he had met with bus drivers last week and worked out a way to eliminate the driving of empty buses to and from Carrabelle.

“We finally came up with a plan that will eliminate completely any empty busies,” he said, noting that the plan would involve having drivers who live in Eastpoint to carpool to the school and then ride together on a school vehicle to and from Carrabelle to the buses they drive.

“Now they’re going to have to drive their own vehicles to school,” said London. “Just in this instance with these five buses, by doing this we will save $4.23 a mile, or about $70,000 a year by making this change.

“Everybody was on board, they like the changes,” he said. “It wasn’t a gripe session, it was a very constructive work session. Even if it saves half that money, we're ahead of the game.”

Shiver said she would like to see more school employees brought into the cost-saving discussions. “They may see something we don’t,” she said. “Sometimes you can see things at the working level.”


Gander selected chairman

The Nov. 20 organizational note began on an upbeat note, as County Judge Van Russell swore in Superintendent Nina Marks, who was reelected to a four-year term without opposition. He then swore in the three school board members who were elected to four-year terms: Teresa Ann Martin and George Thompson, who were returned to office without opposition, and newcomer Pam Shiver, who replaces Carl Whaley.

Following that, in the organizational meeting, Board Member David Hinton signaled the district’s budget woes when he moved to elect Board Member Jimmy Gander to another term as school board chairman.

“We’re in a really bad budget situation,” said Hinton. “It would not be appropriate to nominate another person.”

By unanimous vote, Gander was elected chairman and Thompson vice-chairman. Hinton was once again appointed as the board’s liaison to the Florida legislature.

“I’d like to thank everyone for the confidence placed in me,” said Gander, after Marks handed him the gavel. “I’ll do my best.”

The board voted unanimously to retain Barbara Sanders as school board attorney. She will be paid $125 an hour for her services, and her associate Donna Duncan $95 per hour.

One change that appears to be in the offing is the scheduling of two regular school board meetings per month, as opposed to one on the first Thursday of the month.

“I noticed last year we had a lot of special meetings and my concern is does the board feel we should have two meetings a month and take off the special meetings?” asked Martin.

Gander noted that “as the year goes on, we can try to conduct certain types of business at one meeting and other types at the other. We’re going to be here twice anyway.”

The board agreed to set its regular meetings on the first Thursday of the month, and tasked Marks with coming up with a schedule for a second regular meeting on the third week of each month.

The school board members also unanimously agreed to continue funding the four $1,000 scholarships they present each year to graduating Franklin County High School seniors. Venable advised them that this scholarship account had in it, as of June 30, $6,824, and that it would be properly funded if each board member contributed $33.34 each pay period.

The school board also agreed to continue the forestry scholarship they set up last year as a forgiveness loan to a local student who enrolls in the University of Florida forestry program, which is the only Florida school to offer such a program..

Marks said no local students have yet applied for the scholarship, which is funded through $20,000 set aside each year from funds contributed to the school district, in lieu of taxes, by the state forests.

“I don’t think we need to keep adding money to it if nobody’s using it,” said Hinton.