With lawmakers done, Bibb County school budget will start to gel

Whether you’re balancing a checkbook or allocating $185 million in public funds, navigating budget figures can present a challenge.

Ron Collier, Bibb County school district’s chief financial officer, gave two budget previews last month to school board members during work sessions, and he is getting closer to completing the school system’s budget for fiscal 2016, which begins July 1.

The budget previews were just estimates. Collier will have a more finite set of numbers to work with now that state lawmakers have agreed on next year’s spending plan.

“As we receive additional information from the Legislature and also information from the local tax digest -- from the local tax assessors and commissioner’s office -- we make adjustments accordingly,” he said.

Right now, it’s estimated that the school system will have a general fund of about $185 million for fiscal 2016. Collier said the goal is to always have the fund balance -- what’s left over -- at 8 percent of the general fund, which would be $14.8 million.

Those reserves become vital at certain times of the year because of the ebb and flow of the tax-collection season.

“We need to use our fund balance, or our reserves, to carry us up until the tax dollars are replenished again,” Collier said.

The general fund takes into account anticipated tax revenue that comes from the local and state level. Collier puts that number at about $182 million, which means it’s about $3 million less than where it needs to be to completely support Bibb school operations.

The Georgia Legislature uses the Quality Basic Education Act formula to fund public schools. It has never been fully funded, but this year the reduction in funding is less than it has been in previous years.

While taking into account the ever-changing information, Collier said, “You’re probably still short of where you need to be. So, you’re going to have to make some additional cuts or you’re going to have to get some additional revenue.”

And when planning the budget, Collier said he actually needs to look past the fiscal 2016 reserves.

“The more that we can build our fund balance, the more that we prepare ourselves for (the 2017 and 2018 fiscal years) and beyond.”

This year, Collier has several new factors to consider: from Bibb’s new organizational structure, Investing in Education Excellence, and changes in health care costs to increasing employer contributions in the Teacher Retirement System.

The new organizational structure is something of a trade-off with the state. Bibb school officials commit to improving academic performance. In exchange, they receive waivers from the state to help offset costs.

Collier said he isn’t sure of the exact waivers that Bibb would receive, but added, “I would suspect that they would be some of the waivers that we have now. I think they give you a list of what they call the ‘big four’ ’’ -- class size, expenditure control, certification and salary schedule.

Bibb school board members recently announced their decision to go with IE2 and sent their letter of intent to the state Department of Education. Until it becomes final, there will be some unanswered questions about the financial impact.

Changes in the retirement system will add an additional $1.3 million in costs, and health care is also going up next year by about $150 per participating employee.

“Based upon what we know now, that cost is $1,125,000,” Collier said of the health care changes. “That’s the impact, ... but we’re already paying a cost. We’re paying, right now, almost $600 a month per classified employee. That comes to about $7,200 a year.”

When dealing with the shifting numbers and policy changes that directly affect Bibb school’s budget, it’s a continuous balancing act.

“We give on one hand and we take away on the other,” Collier said.