At a work session held Jan. 27, the Liberty County Board of Education learned that it is facing a $12 million shortfall for its upcoming fiscal-year 2015-’16 budget.
LCSS Superintendent Dr. Valya Lee stated that a cumulative loss of $33 million in state and federal funding over the last four years has played a major role in the district’s financial state.
Despite the loss of revenue, she said, LCSS has retained the same number of employees over the past several years and, in fact, filled vacant positions that were needed to “enhance teaching and learning” and “improve the educational experiences” of district students.
These practices have eroded the district’s fund balance, she said, and as a result, the school system must eliminate any non-essential positions heading into the 2015-’16 fiscal year. She said that she will bring recommendations for positions to be eliminated at the board’s Feb. 10 meeting.
Lee also proposed other potential cost-saving measures at the work session, including possible changes to the Liberty County Pre-K Center.
Lee explained that the pre-K center operates under the guidance of — and receives the bulk of its funding from — Bright from the Start, Georgia’s state-funded department that oversees numerous programs aimed at children from birth to school-age, including the pre-K program.
According to Lee, Bright from the Start provides LCSS enough money to fund all the positions currently filled at the pre-K center, but not enough to “look at advanced degrees, the local supplement and the step increases.”
Lee said her staff is working on a pay scale for pre-K employees that would not award for advanced degrees or experience beyond five years. The board would be able to consider and vote on whether or not to enact the pay scale as a cost-saving measure.
The superintendent said she would bring at least one more option regarding cost-savings at the pre-K center for the board’s consideration. She said that teachers may be able to keep their pre-K positions and salaries, but it would require moving the pre-K students back into district elementary schools.
“When you built the (pre-K center), you had enough tax dollars to do it. And, you still have enough tax dollars to maintain it,” Lee said. “But we have to look at what’s coming from the state and what we are expending, and (ask), ‘is it in our best interest to continue that way?’”
According to a slide that Lee presented, the district receives $1,596,740 annually from Bright from the Start — 90 percent of which, she said, must be spent on salaries.
The same slide showed the total cost of operating the pre-K center as $3,276,623, meaning a total of $1.1 million comes from the district’s general fund in support of the center.
“I hate to say it this way, but if we still had the pre-K at the schools, we could do it with (just the state’s funds), because all you’d be concerned with would be salaries,” Lee said.
She said that the pre-K center was one of the things she was “most impressed with” when she came to Liberty County, even adding that she has called former colleagues to rave about LCSS’ pre-K setup.
However, she said that the overall fiscal impact of operating a separate pre-K facility — including $94,732 in food-service workers’ salaries — was a cause of concern.
“Pre-K is costing us,” Lee said. “I don’t know the answer. I don’t have the answer. I’m going to bring you a couple recommendations, and I’m going to continue to solicit them from anybody we can.”
The superintendent also took the opportunity to answer a few “frequently asked” questions, such as why certain central-level office positions had been added in the past year, and why others are currently being advertised for.
Lee said that no positions had been “added” — rather, vacant positions that already existed were filled.
She also said that positions that currently are being advertised for will be funded either through grants or other funding sources, and that the positions will pose “no additional strain” on the general fund.
The superintendent said she plans to bring recommendations for a districtwide reduction in force, as well as some possible recommendations for the pre-K center, at the board’s next meeting, scheduled for Feb. 10.