What’s really wrong with BoE’s budget: Bad financial reporting

Tue, 09/29/2009 - 3:08pm
By: Letters to the ...

My name is David Gardner and I am currently a bus driver for Fayette County, Ga. I have been driving for eight years. I am a retired financial executive from a large corporation, having 30 years of financial experience.

I started attending school board meetings, when about a year ago I found out the county was contemplating reducing or eliminating the supplements for health insurance to all employees.

A bus driver gets a very small salary and the health insurance benefits for school system employees is one of the main reasons we drive. Eliminating or cutting this supplement is a large reduction of our total pay versus a teacher or administrator.

After lots of hard work and many long school board meetings, the board decided to cut everyone’s pay 4.5 percent, which we all agreed was more equitable than reducing benefits, as that would really hit the low-paid employees harder than the average employee.

I learned a lot attending these board meetings and spoke at many of them trying to protect our benefit supplement and recommended reducing other areas of expenses that I felt were not yet where they should be.

It became apparent that the financial data available and presented to the board was weak, not timely and often changed by the week or month drastically. Finance was weak in forecasting, budgeting and timely reporting.

They currently have a very old general ledger system which makes analysis and creating good reports for actions to take place very cumbersome. Excuses of the bills aren’t in yet, we don’t know what the state funding will be, I can’t forecast that until I get the actual spending or it’s too difficult, the taxpayers want all this spending over state-mandated positions — all this has to change.

Fund balance or reserve became the game breaker in trying to understand where we stood financially and where and how much we needed to cut the budget. Financial guidelines recommended that counties keep approximately 10 percent of their budgeted dollars in a cash reserve fund for rainy days or economic downturns.

I quickly learned that Fayette County had a very low reserve and back in September 2008 I saw a big problem coming. Fayette County as a percentage of their budgeted dollars was close to the bottom of all Georgia counties in reserves kept in case revenues somehow got reduced.

What I surmised over the past five or ten years was that finance and the board of education kept our millage rate low, spent lots of money, gave the administration large raises, built schools we did not need and eventually our reserves dwindled to a negative number late last year.

After 75 days from our school system June 30, 2009 year-end date, we still didn’t know what our fund balance or reserves were. If we don’t know what our beginning balance is, how can we make good decisions on moving forward financially?

Last night at a special called board meeting one of the teachers after the meeting heard from the comptroller that the balance could be $4.2 million but they had not had enough time to calculate it. We were under the impression it was more like $1.6 million!

Well, lo and behold, approximately $3 million appeared the night of the last board meeting Sept. 21.

Where did this come from, what accounts were way under budget and why didn’t we know this until so late, almost three months after the close of the school year?

I was appointed to the cost-cutting committee last fall and I knew, based on what I was exposed to, there was financially big trouble ahead.

Back in late 2008, I knew the fuel budget for transportation was way over-budgeted but finance said they could not accurately forecast what it would be.

I took on the task of reforecasting fuel expenses and reporting on oil trends every month for the school year just ended June 30, 2009, and as expected, we were approximately $360,000 under budget in this one account.

I asked them back then to analyze all accounts and let the department heads get involved and report monthly on an updated reforecast of all expenses, but I don’t think that happened.

You should see what some of these department heads are getting paid and you should wonder why they can’t reforecast their department expenses monthly or quarterly. Just go to the website further down in this letter and have at it.

Finance is the heartbeat of reporting and recommending solutions to get us back on track, and we are not in a position to respond quickly to the school board’s appetite for numbers and reports.

The 1 percent eSPLOST passed late last year in Fayette County, so a new general ledger accounting system is on the horizon, but we really needed it years ago. A new system alone will not solve our problems; there must also be a strong improvement of financial reporting and proactive decision-making, from finance and the board.

It is true that the state has reduced funding to Fayette County schools over the last seven or so years by millions of dollars. However, our tax digest has risen substantially, to offset much of this loss in state revenue over the same period.

Just recently over the last two years, our net tax digest stopped growing and actually started shrinking with foreclosures at an all-time high. Thus, the perfect storm.

Let me give you some statistics to solidify what was apparently happening from 2000 through 2008 which is in the latest financial report that is available on line at www.audits.state.ga.us.

You can also see salaries, travel reimbursements, and the financial report for school year ending June 2008, which is the latest numbers available online.

Student population grew 14.4 percent over eight years. Total employees grew 25.7 percent, almost double the student population growth. General fund expenses grew 68.8 percent, school administrative expenses grew 74.5 percent, and maintenance and operations grew by 70.8 percent. The cost per pupil grew by 48 percent; our total property tax levy grew by 82.7 percent. Local and other revenue grew by 73.5 percent, state revenue grew 45.6 percent, federal revenue grew by 135.7 percent and total revenue grew 61.3 percent.

So you see, we had plenty of money but overspent our revenue stream, causing our reserves to be depleted.

To summarize, I will list areas that I think should have further analysis to potentially find additional dollars so we don’t continue to eliminate teachers and services that impact our children’s education.

Our current student population is declining, our tax digest is declining and our state revenue is also declining. Our county school M&O millage rate is at 20.00, the maximum allowed, and the state has placed a cap on property assessments for the next two years.

We must do things differently and review all costs, especially all positions, as salaries are our biggest expense.

Analyze state funding by positions compared to county taxpayer funding and prioritize where can we reduce additional head counts that could reduce costs and least impact our kids’ real education: i.e., central office employees, administrators, coordinators, transportation, human resources (estimated head counts — 1996 = 3 people, 2006 = 9 people, 2009 = 13 people), and do we really need a P.R. position in these tough times, etc?

Review all departments with a headcount analysis for the past five years with job descriptions and compare it to student population growth. Do we really need all these people supporting our teachers and children?

Utilization of fixed costs (percent utilization of each school to its capacity) and get a cost per student attending each school. We currently have a brand new elementary school that we don’t need, another elementary school that’s not needed and maybe a middle school we might not need.

Do we really need football teams in seventh, eighth, ninth or JV and varsity?? What is this costing us and is this really more important than teachers and benefits for our employees?

Review of all consulting expenses, and do we really need them in these tough times. We hired consultants to do a salary study and we also had consultants review our school district populations by school and am not quite sure if we used this data or not.

I still think we can do a better job in energy savings management. Are our thermostats really at the correct temperature? Just ask your kids if it’s too cold in some of these schools in the summer and too hot in the winter.

In closing, I would like to say we have a great school system in Fayette County with great employees, but unfortunately the board made some incorrect decisions over the past few years with weak financial support, but hopefully they have learned a great deal over this past year. I again offer my services for free to help them in this mission.

David Gardner

Peachtree City, Ga.

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Submitted by rogger on Mon, 11/02/2009 - 2:49pm.

It's admirable that you do this work and get involved in all the local problems. I don't think I've ever met anyone as altruistic as you. What made you get that involved? Financial consultants are generally formal pragmatic people...
Rogger at Trianz

suggarfoot's picture
Submitted by suggarfoot on Fri, 10/02/2009 - 11:28am.

I understand that the buss drivers don't work 40 hrs a week. But in a way they do, their entire day is chewed in half by the bus schedule and it would be impossible to have another job. I can see benefits for the buss drivers, but for the life of me I can't see it for the other part timers.

We need to cut down at the main office. A good computer system would do a world of good replacing so much unneeded bureaucracy. The out of county kids is as bad a problem as ever. I have taken several kids home that visited my child and drove into Clayton county on more than one occasion.

All this just goes back to very bad management. And you just keep re electing them.

suggarfoot's picture
Submitted by suggarfoot on Wed, 09/30/2009 - 7:08am.

in Lee Wright's seat? He is up for re election next year. The voters left the other two problems in office I'm afraid. But we could break their developer friendly monopoly on the school board if we get him out.

SPQR's picture
Submitted by SPQR on Wed, 09/30/2009 - 6:23am.

Any outside consultant review of the school system would probably need to be commissioned by an outside entity to have any validity.

When you think about it providing health insurance to part time employees also might be a little much.

Submitted by hsh87 on Sun, 10/04/2009 - 7:37pm.

The term "providing" I feel the need to better explain. What David was referring to is that we have insurance and a portion is paid towards it. For instance, health insurance, the county pays $71.00, I pay $191.96; the dental is $22.00, I pay $34.38. With the 4.5% pay cut along with an additional $93.00 a month pay cut - the job would pay $500/month. I have been driving for 6 years with two 2% cost of living increases that were just taken away plus another .5% - no pay raise, level increase or whatever it is called. A new driver today would start at my pay amount even after 6 years experience. If they were to cut out the insurance along with this lovely pay cut we just received it would amount to about $150.00 a month cut for me. I love driving the bus, but for $500/ month I would have no choice but to find a better paying position given the responsibilities that rest on us. I also don't know too many who would do a job for this long with good reviews and never receive a raise.

suggarfoot's picture
Submitted by suggarfoot on Wed, 09/30/2009 - 7:19am.


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