Bibb BOE passes contentious budget in 5-3 vote

The Bibb County school board approved its fiscal 2013 budget Thursday night in a 5-3 vote, but not without discussion from some board members about administrative costs and reliance on $8 million from its reserves to balance the budget.

Board members Gary Bechtel, Lynn Farmer and Sue Sipe voted down the budget, which includes about $179.6 million in general fund expenditures.

The system will draw $8 million from its fund balance, or reserves, to cover a revenue gap from reduced state and local revenues and an increase in employee benefits.

The reserves, projected to be about $15.7 million for fiscal 2013, will dip down to about $1.3 million in two years if the system continues on its current course, according to figures from Chief Financial Officer Ron Collier.

“This is my last vote on the budget on this board,” said Bechtel, who will leave the board after this year because of term limits. “I can’t support a budget that goes into reserves $8 million that we worked so hard to build without a concrete plan to replenish it and to have a secure financial footing as we go forward.”

Other board members, including Tom Hudson and President Tommy Barnes pointed out system expenses are lower in fiscal 2013 than the previous year -- by about $22,000 -- even with lower tax revenues and higher staff benefits expenses. The projections for the fund balance will come to fruition if the school board doesn’t take any action by then, Barnes said. The system could replenish its reserves through measures such as tax increases or staff furloughs or job cuts.

“We don’t anticipate on doing nothing between now and then,” said Barnes, who also will hit term limits this year. “The next board will have an opportunity to do that.”

On June 27, the board approved a spending resolution to cover the system’s expenses until the fiscal 2013 budget was approved. The spending resolution covers July spending up to one-twelfth of fiscal 2012 funds, along with debt and capital projects payments due this month.

School systems and other local governments are supposed to pass annual budgets before the beginning of the fiscal year -- July 1 for the Bibb County school system. If the budget is not passed in time, school boards must pass a spending resolution until the full budget is passed, according to state guidelines.

The remaining $15.7 million fund balance is slightly lower than the recommended amount but close to recommended levels in years past.

Bechtel, Farmer and Sipe raised concerns over the amount taken from reserves, saying the system has increased its expenditures for administrators and support staff while cutting down on instructional spending. They also said system leaders need to prioritize Macon Miracle initiatives that could wait to be put in place after the system is in better financial shape.

Farmer said the system has boosted salary and benefits to administrators in the central office and the system’s Welcome Center, paying for retirement and moving costs for employees it did not in the past, as well as paying higher salaries to some staff members without college degrees than to teachers with master’s degrees.

“Call me a tightwad -- I am -- but these kind of salaries bother me,” Farmer said. “I have concerns about what we’ve done. I’m not sure we’ve cut money out of central office staff.”

Sipe mentioned a $2.4 million reduction in spending on instruction and higher spending for general administration and support staff.

The three also said there should have been more board member involvement in the budget process.

“We should have been involved in the front end of this and not the tail end,” Sipe said. Collier said the budget was put together while grappling with higher insurance and benefits costs for employees and reduced state and local revenue from local property tax values, declining student enrollment, austerity reductions and changes to the state formula that distributes funds to needy students.

“We’re spending less money this year than what the budget was last year,” Collier said. “I don’t know how else to do that.”

Hudson said the board was looking to overhaul the Bibb County school system when it chose Dallemand as superintendent, and he has been receptive to community feedback about the plan.

“Our children cannot wait,” Hudson said. “It is commendable to be able to put together a budget less than last year’s budget and do so much more.”

To contact writer Andrea Castillo, call 744-4331.