It's about money. Or finding ways to save it.
For the past month, Fayette County Public Schools officials have racked their brains, trying to figure out how to trim $20 million from the district's budget.
That is no small task, and it is a matter that Superintendent Tom Shelton has presented to the public in hopes of finding solutions that won't be detrimental to the district's greatest mission: educating students.
The challenge, though, is that employee salaries eat up the bulk of the $433.1 million budget.
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In essence, Shelton says, there is no way to cut $20 million, or 5 percent of the district's general fund spending, without affecting staff.
"I don't like to think about it in terms of losing staff," he said of the cuts. "I think we can deal with it through attrition."
Nonetheless, questions have been asked and concerns have been raised.
Shelton said administrators began working this month with site-based councils to make decisions about next year's staffing, which accounts for about 88 percent of the budget. They're using projected attendance figures and last year's formula. But they're also running numbers with a 5 percent cut in staffing, which Shelton has said is a worst-case scenario.
Nonetheless, it is all part of the belt-tightening.
It started, in part, when Shelton said he decided to take a 5 percent cut to his own salary, which was $254,610 in 2013. He later said he would ask the board in August to approve tax rates on real and personal property that would generate a 4 percent increase in revenue. Last week, Shelton said he could save about $2 million or $3 million next school year by cutting two noninstructional days — times when teachers and staff work, but classes are not in session. And he's said there will be at least a 5 percent budget cut at Central Office, which will involve combining duties and reducing salaries.
The district is not broke, Shelton has said, but its spending is exceeding its revenue. Revenue hinges on property taxes, a portion of utility bills and money from the state.
Where did the revenue go?
Fayette schools were somewhat shielded from the 2008 recession that crippled other districts.
Other school districts have had significant layoffs; Fayette County raised employee salaries in order to recruit and retain talented staff members. When state funding and federal grants were cut, the district picked up the tab for positions and programs, thinking money from the state and federal governments would come back.
They covered their losses by dipping into the fund balance, or reserves, which was $83.3 million in 2010; the fund balance is $36.5 million this school year.
Shelton said the district began using the surplus, similar to a family's savings account, "but that's what it's for."
The superintendent gave the following analogy: Someone might have a month's worth of rent. Another person might have three months. The person with three months' rent can survive longer than the person with one.
But, at some point, even a person with three months' rent starts to worry.
Similarly, Shelton became concerned. Looking at the reserves, he said, "in two more years we're not going to have anything."
For the past several weeks, the district has been trying to solve that puzzle. The budget will be finalized May 31.
Jessica Hiler, the president of the Fayette County Education Association, a voluntary association that represents teachers, said it is her hope that the district uses the feedback it has gotten from teachers, parents and students about the budget.
Shelton has said he would.
"Our intention — and I know people don't believe this — is to be as transparent and open about this as possible," Shelton said. "If people can find $20 million, fine; it doesn't have to be my idea. We want to do it with as many people possible."