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|Higher costs hit parish schools|
Rising costs for almost everything the parish school system pays for will push the Ouachita Parish School Board's expenditures over its revenues for the 2008-09 fiscal year.
The school board approved its 2008-09 fiscal year budget Tuesday during its regular meeting.
Costs for fuel and utilities and medical expenses have increased drastically over the past three years, and that trend is not expected to slow down anytime soon. An increase in salaries and benefits for additional staff also has been a major factor in driving up expenditures at the parish school system.
Budgeted expenditures for the 2008-09 fiscal year are expected to exceed revenue by $832,411.
Health insurance premiums increased by $450,000 to $15.45 million for the 2008-09 fiscal year.
Natural gas and electricity costs are expected to increase $300,000.
Another increase in expenditures the school system encountered this year was fuel costs for the school system's bus fleet. Fuel costs for the current fiscal year increased $230,000 over last year. The school system has budgeted $950,000 to pay for the fleet's fuel during the 2008-09 fiscal year.
School board business manager Richard Garrett said the parish school system will work to reduce expenditures over the course of the new fiscal year to offset increased costs. The 2008-09 fiscal year began July 1. It runs through June 30, 2009.
The parish school system has some $16 million in its general fund. The general fund is the school system's main operating fund. It pays for salaries and benefits, and fuel and utility costs, among other items.
Approximately 87.1 percent of the general fund's budget is dedicated to salaries and benefits for school system employees.
When the school system needs to enact budget cuts, Garrett said it must be done by reducing salaries and benefits. That usually means some employees must be terminated.
This year, the school system will reduce the system's instructional staff by 33, or about one person for each school. That will provide a savings of $1.8 million.
The school system also plans to consolidate some bus routes to provide additional savings of about $30,000 in salaries and benefits.
"Maintaining the fund balance at its current amount is a concern," Garrett said. "We are trying to reduce expenditures in 2008-09 by reducing staff and bus routes."
"We are also looking at ways to conserve utilities," Garrett explained. "However, utilities, fuel costs and health insurance continue to increase. What people are facing in their personal lives, we're facing here. It's like fighting a losing battle. I don't have a lot of wiggle room to get this budget balanced for this year with these rising costs. Hopefully by the end of the year it will be reduced to a balanced budget."
He said the school system's business department is "making plans for the 2009-10 fiscal year to deal with the increasing costs."
Last year, the school system's general fund balance rose to about 19 percent of total expenditures. The school board wanted to reduce it by about $5 million.
The school board prefers to keep the general fund balance between 10 percent and 15 percent of total expenditures, Garrett said.
The school system's general fund balance was reduced through one-time expenditures such as renovations at various schools. The school system also hired 100 instructional staff members to improve teacher-to-student ratio throughout the school system. The school system made that move to improve student test scores.
"The way you increase those scores is you have more tutoring, you have more after-school programs and lower pupil to teacher ratios," Garrett said. "We hired those 100 people last year to do that, and that's the main reason our fund balance decreased last year."