School board hears budget update

    During its meeting last week, the St. James Board of Education heard a budget update from Superintendent Dr. Merlyn Johnson, who spoke about how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting budget planning. Budgets must be approved for the next fiscal year by June 30 and there is much uncertainty about how school shutdowns will affect districts statewide.

    “There is a chance, according to information I just received this week from the state, the state might not be able to approve their state budget at the constitutional deadline of May 8. If they push that back, late May early June. We will probably not have a lot of information on the funding numbers we get from the state to have our school budget approved,” Johnson said. “We can get it approved, but with a lot of caveats of being amended in July or August or later in the year.”
    Johnson said, sales tax numbers are down statewide, which could have an impact on many districts. “We do have a portion of our budget, called Prop C, which is dependent on the sales tax, and the Classroom Trust Funds, which is dependent on the casinos. It has had quite an impact on those funds that will be drastically reduced in our final payments. We are looking at a 15 percent reduction (in those funds),” Johnson said. “We are trying to be prepared for the unknown in the budgets. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”
    The district will see some savings on materials and supplies due to school being closed for a quarter of the school year and many of those supplies going unused. “Since we did miss a little bit less than a quarter of our school year, our material and supplies budgets will be reduced by 20 to 25 percent,” Johnson said.
    “We did hear on Monday from the State Budget Director (Dan Haug). He said that (there is a potential) of a $1 billion shortfall and in that, school districts need to be ready. School districts would be the last to be hit with withholdings, but there is a great chance (of that) and we plan for a decrease,” Johnson explained.
    There are provisions to help school districts under a federal stimulus act that require states to maintain support for K-12 education at the same level as the average of the past three years. This should, Johnson said, protect school districts this year. The state applied for CARES Act funding, which will provide $694,000 for St. James.
    “The good news is the CARES Act funding; it was something the state had to apply for and they got it. So, St. James will get 82 percent of its Title 1 allocation,” he told the board.
    He added the school could receive that in the next two to three weeks. The district is also seeking other grant opportunities. Johnson said any expenditures due to COVID-19, such as additional disinfectants used to clean buildings and distance-learning costs, would be reimbursed to the district. All costs on practices, which would not have otherwise been done normally, would be reimbursed.
    The board also held discussions on another budget concern regarding School Resource Officers (SRO). “City Administrator Jim Fleming (said) in a letter the city is looking to renegotiate the contract for our resource officers for the next school year. They are having, obviously with everything going on, the city is having a hard time in their budget to fund the program,” Johnson said.
    He told the board the city has not yet decided if they plan to continue the resource officer program at all or partially fund an officer. “Right now, we are splitting with the city 50/50 for two SROs,” he explained. Should the city decide not to fund the SRO program, Johnson said the district is currently paying enough to fund one officer, should the board continue the program.
    “We did help startup costs for the patrol car and equipment. If they were to decide to cut funding for both SROs, I believe there would be some kind of reimbursement for us helping with that start up. At the same time, it would be my opinion, we would continue the school districts funding for one SRO if it’s 100 percent cut by the city,” Johnson said.
    Board members said they would like to continue the SRO program in some capacity, even if the district fully funds just one. Johnson told the board the city is also having issues filling vacancies at the police department and, should the program be eliminated, the officer who is cut would continue to work for the police department, filling one of the vacancies.
    More budget discussions will take place over the next few months once more information is presented on how these issues will affect St. James. The board plans on moving forward with the district budget for approval in June.