Whitehall school district staying in the black

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With Whitehall schools considering a district-wide building improvement project, the forecast for the district’s operating expenses over the next five years is a little rosier than expected.

During the Oct. 8 regular meeting of the Whitehall Board of Education, Treasurer Tim Penton led the board in a budget discussion focusing on the five-year financial forecast.

He began with fiscal year 2008, which is expected to have $28.318 million in revenue, $23.304 million in expenditures – leaving the district with $13,155 remaining.

"This fiscal year we appear that we will kind of break even," he said. "It leaves us with a positive balance."

However, Penton said by fiscal year 2009 the district will be in a deficit spending status. It is forecasted that revenues will be $28.49 million and expenditures will be $30 million, with the district needing to make up $1.5 million from its "savings," or unreserved funds account.

By tapping into those unreserved funds, Penton said, "It still leaves us with a positive balance at the end of fiscal year 2009."

This pattern continues through fiscal years 2010 and 2011, until the unreserved funds are depleted.

Penton said he has previously projected the district would run into a negative balance sooner than this.

"Why can we continue to go positive through fiscal year 2010 and 2011?" Penton asked the board. "The simple explanation is we took in more money than we expected and we spent less than we expected."

The increased revenue is not due to real estate taxes, he noted.

"We really have not seen a great growth in real estate taxes," he said. "The money did not come from there."

Instead, Whitehall has seen a significant increase in state foundation money and poverty-based assistance, which was not expected.

"I want to stress that when I forecast something for five years I can only give you, at least, two years," Penton explained. "When you start projecting the numbers out it can really move the bottom line."

Whitehall’s state foundation money has increased as much as 25 percent some years, jumping from $6.9 million in fiscal year 1999 to $14.6 million in fiscal year 2008, he noted.

Another unpredictable portion of the budget is tuition costs for community and charter schools, Penton commented. During the 1998-99 school year, that tuition only cost the district $12,000, compared to the $1.4 million it cost for the 2006-07 school year.

The good news, Penton commented, is tuition costs for community and charter have been roughly the same for the last three years.

"It appears it has leveled off," he said. "We are hopeful we are drawing our students back now … I’m hoping that it has peaked and any other increase is minimal."

Factored into the budget is skyrocketing medical insurance costs, which the district believes it now has under control. Costs were $1.1 million in 1998-99 and peaked at $2.2 million in 2004-05.

"It was very alarming to us," Penton said. "Those are $200,000 to $300,000 increases each year."

After amending the insurance plan type and provider, expenses for 2006-07 are down to $1.8 million.

"We made a correction on that which is very favorable to our bottom line," he said. "We did that with the intent of making our bottom line better so we could get through fiscal year 2009."

Penton said the superintendent keeps a very close eye on staffing, which helps the district stay in the black.

"Where there is an opportunity, we reduce it," he said. "Eighty percent of our budget floats around it."

Being creative with grant money also helps the district, Penton said. Whenever the district receives additional grants for programs it already has, Penton said that previously earmarked money is redistributed to other areas "to make sure we maximize our programming based on the assistance we receive."

Penton said he gets frustrated sometimes when the budget doesn’t turn out exactly as he predicts, but he wants district residents to know they are keeping a watchful eye on the district finances at all times.

"It’s people’s very hard-earned money in our community and we have to be responsible and effective," he said. "We struggle really hard to make all the dollars we have keep going."

The board unanimously adopted the five-year forecast

The district has heard that it is in line for a large amount of money from the Ohio Schools Facilities Commission to replace or renovate all of its buildings, with matching local funds from a voted bond issue.

Tardiness policy amended

In other news, the board unanimously agreed to revise the attendance policy for the athletic handbook for parents and athletes.

"We think we have a little tweaking we need to do on the tardiness part of our policy," said Superitendent Judyth Dobbert-Meloy. "It’s a process. I think we will be tweaking it for a while until we see what is going to work."

According to the revised policy, excuses for tardiness must be provided to the attendance office on the day that its occurs. No unexcused missed school time will be changed to "excused" after the end of the school day during which the missed time occurred.

Also during the meeting, the board agreed to hear a report regarding discipline for the recently revised dress codes and wearing of identification cards.

This was prompted by board member Blythe Wood, who said, "One of the things I have been approached about is the dress code. I want to know what it’s taking to enforce it and whether we should look at implementing standardized dress."

Dobbert-Meloy acknowleged the enforcement is "taking a lot of time and effort."

She commented she has personally seen a huge improvement in dress and attitude.

"The board is just going to have to decide what you want and then we’ll work out the details later," she said, noting she would have a report on discipline for dress code and idenitification tags at the next meeting, which is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 8 at Etna Road Elementary.

In addition, the board unanimously agreed to accept donations of $2,000 from the Beechwood Elementary PTA and $2,500 from the Etna Road Elementary PTA to fund visiting author Patricia Polacco and $1,500 from the Whitehall Target store for the C. Ray Williams Preschool family night.

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