Proration may alter Linden schools

Published 11:37 pm Thursday, January 15, 2009

Proration is hitting school districts throughout Alabama pretty hard — especially at the state’s smallest school district, Linden.

Gov. Bob Riley declared 12.5-percent proration in the education budget in December but softened the blow with $218 million from the education rainy day fund.

That will leave the Linden school district with very few options, one of which may be to eventually seek a merger with the county school district. It will certainly mean teacher reductions for next year and possibly consolidating campuses.

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“We will be able to continue like we are now until the rest of the school year,” said Linden schools superintendent Scott Collier. “We have some reserves that we can use to cover the shortage.”

Collier said there is about $300,000 in reserve right now, and he predicts about $200,000 will be needed from that fund to finish out the school year.

The problem with cutting back spending at Linden schools is finding a place left to cut. The school district has already been operating under tight conditions.

“We will do things like continue to watch our electricity usage — making better sure all the lights are turned off when school is out and things like that,” Collier said. “That will save us some, but it will not be a lot of money. We are facing a cut of about $270,000 for the rest of this school year. “

“I had planned according to what the state education department said we would probably have, a 3-percent cut. I hadn’t planned for 9-percent cut.”

The Linden City School District is comprised of four campuses: the elementary school, middle school, high school and vocational center. It takes a budget of nearly $6 million each year to teach the 500 students who are enrolled there.

Sixty-three percent of the school’s annual budget comes from the state, mostly for teachers’ salaries. Fourteen percent comes from the federal government, specifically for programs like Title I. Seventeen percent comes from local tax revenue and 6 percent comes from other sources. Most of the local money comes from the county’s 1-percent sales tax.

Collier said the district employs nearly 40 certified teachers and staff who are under contract. There are an additional 31 employees who fill positions like secretary, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and janitors. Five employees are administrators.

“Eighty to 85 percent of our budget is tied to personnel,” Collier said. “If we have a significant amount of funds next year that we have to cut as well, then we will have to look at personnel. Other than cutting teachers, we have already reduced down to just what we need to operate: basically, a secretary and a janitor at each school. We don’t have a lot of aides or support staff we can reduce. We have already done that.”

Collier indicated that it would be almost inevitable that the number of teachers will be reduced for the 2009-10 school year.

“We are going to end up with larger class sizes. We have great teachers, and every one of them is doing a great job. I wouldn’t want to lose a single one,” Collier said, but admitted it is one of the only options left. “Anything we do like this is going to affect student achievement. When you get class sizes over 30 to 35 students, it is going to make a difference on what you can do. There will be far less quality time with the students, one-on-one.”

The school district and state education leaders are looking into a variety of options to ease the blow to schools.

“They (state officials) are even looking into shortening the school year,” said Collier.

In Linden, Collier said some options that may be available after all other options have been exhausted would be to consolidate campuses — the three main campuses are already sharing one cafeteria — or trying to merge back into the Marengo County School District.

“Merging with the county school district is always an option,” said Collier. “If we get to where the school board has done the best it can for as long as it can, then that will certainly be an option.”

Even if the school district tried to raise taxes, it would only be a drop in the bucket to what they would need.

“We went from 8 mills to 10 mills, and it only netted us about $27,000,” he said. “I don’t know if it would really help that much, and I am also not sure if the people will be willing to pay more taxes with the hard economic times. They are hurting, too.

“We have been looking outside the box and been getting creative on how we fund a lot of the programs we have. We are looking for grants and ways to fund things our kids need. We’ve done a pretty good job at that in the past, but it may become difficult to find corporations or businesses that have money and is willing to do that during the hard economic times.”

Before proration was announced in December, Collier felt pretty good about his situation. The school district had a significant reserve fund to fall back on and was prepared for a 3- to 5-percent cut from the state. Enrollment had even climbed a little for the first time in several years.

“Our enrollment had been going down over the years,” said Collier. “We used to have over 700 students. I was pretty optimistic because it had come up some this year, then proration hit. It couldn’t have come at a worst time for us.”