Federal Money Saves School Budget

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Federal funds saved the Payson Unified School District from catastrophe this year, Superintendent Casey O’Brien said Monday.

Nearly $2.9 million in stimulus money and a Forest Service program for rural schools offset the district’s 7-percent decrease in its $14.6-million operations fund for fiscal year 2010.

“If it wasn’t for stimulus money and the Forest Service fee money, we would have seen catastrophic cuts,” O’Brien said. He paused and added, “I don’t use that word with any sense of exaggeration.”

The district received $1.1 million more in federal funds this year than last year.

The board approved an $18.7-million budget Monday night despite a still uncertain future. Lawmakers still have an estimated $2-billion deficit in the state budget, and future changes could affect schools.

The district’s budget increased by $236,000 after the governor called a special session to change the legislature’s budget, which she had called “fatally flawed.”

Remaining uncertainties include the fate of a performance pay program for teachers and a tax that generates money for things like textbooks and utility bills.

The state budget funds the performance pay program, called Career Ladder, at last year’s level for now. However, O’Brien said some legislators are still contemplating changes, including phasing the program out over 11 years.

Lawmakers could also repeal the equalization tax, which cost the state $250 million in 2008, and helps to fund schools. Although counties originally levied the tax, the state has picked up the tab from its general fund for the past three years.

If the legislature does nothing by Oct. 1, counties would again levy the tax, although it’s not clear how much money that means for Payson. The change could affect both money for soft capital — used for things like textbooks — and funding for utility bills.

For now, the district received no money for utility bills, a loss of $493,000.

Also during the special session, lawmakers reduced soft capital statewide by $175 million, however O’Brien said it’s not yet clear what that means for Payson. The cut was not included in the budget, which allowed $729,000 for soft capital, up 21 percent from last year.

The district added the unanticipated $236,000 from the special session into the classroom instruction fund. So instead of an 8-percent decrease to $5.8 million, the fund will decrease just under 5 percent to $6 million.

Students will likely not see an impact, O’Brien said. Teachers, however, may be affected because some of that money funds performance pay.

Business manager Bobette Tomerlin has become a fund-juggler, moving salaries for several positions, including 12 teachers, a librarian and a nurse from the operations budget into a fund with federal money in it. Salaries for other positions moved into the stimulus pot.

Tomerlin said she hopes to carve out a reserve. The challenge has been cutting enough to stay solvent without resorting to draconian measures. The district now has $203,000 in reserves, which could help absorb future cuts. Last fiscal year, the legislature cut $289,000 from the district’s operations budget mid-year.

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