Budgets are often complicated, touchy subjects for the St. Johns County School District.
The list of financial terms is never-ending, the tax rates can be confusing and Legislative cutbacks paired with accelerated student growth are enough to make any teacher’s head spin.
And while the School District can’t increase this year’s percentage of .72 state funding or slow the 5 percent student influx, it is offering some clarity for teachers confused by budget intricacies.
“We want teachers to know the choices the School Board has made with the funds,” said Beth Sweeny, coordinator of government relations. “We’re just trying to explain how we’re funded, basically where our paychecks come from.”
Sweeny is one of several district staff members visiting schools to present teachers with an overview of the operating budget, a briefing otherwise known as “Balancing the Checkbook.”
“It’s meant to put things in a simple manner,” Sweeny said.
The idea stemmed from last year’s presentation on the half-cent sales tax, when district staff explained the capital funding responsible for school construction, maintenance and infrastructure.
“When we went through all the half-cent sales tax presentations, we did a really good job going over capital expenditures,” said Christina Langston, chief of community relations. “We realized there was an opportunity to do the same for the operating budget.”
Around 85 percent of the operating revenue, which Sweeny describes as “the paycheck,” is funded through state and local taxes and goes toward staff salaries and benefits.
Sweeny said the district received a particularly low financial blow in the 2016-17 school year after Legislature decreased the district’s funding to .72 percent, or $10.4 million.
This year also marks the lowest millage rate the county has seen in over 30 years, she added.
“That’s problematic when you’re in such a fast-growing county like ours, where growth should be paying for itself for some extent,” Sweeny said.
Once the operating budget or the “checking account” divvies its funds to required allocations, a little more than $3 million remains in net funds.
“And that’s just after we pay for all the things we’re supposed to pay for,” Sweeny said. “Then there’s the cost of business.”
That cost, composed of medical insurance, compensation and employee benefits, utility increases, reserve requirements, a backslide of federeal funding and the opening of Elementary “M” requires another $2.5 million.
Sweeny said that forces the district to pull from its operating fund balance.
“Or the savings account,” she said.
In the last five years, the district has drained $26 million from its operating fund balance to maintain its operating budget.
“The problem is that the budget hasn’t recovered, so we’re continuing to utlize our savings to keep our staffing and programs in place,” Superintendent Joe Joyner said. “That can’t go on forever, we need the revenue.”
And while state education funding has plummeted from 32 percent in 2010 to 29 percent in 2016, it’s not all doom-and-gloom.
The district has made an active approach to cutting unnecessary expenditures, realigning staff responsibilities and making adjustments. The effort has saved $3.1 million just by minimalizing district office expenses.
That means 97 cents of every dollar cycles back to the schools.
Joyner said he hopes the presentations encourage teachers to not only understand the budget, but to advocate for it.
He added that the district’s presence in front of Legislature will be bigger and stronger than ever in upcoming negotiations.
Michelle Dillon, the president of the St. Johns Education Association, said she’s particularly worried about Legislature’s position on education funding.
“I’m concerned for our students and teachers as Tallahassee decides how much money to give us, especially as a growing district,” Dillon said.
But Joyner said teachers shouldn’t be worried, staff layoffs aren’t a topic of discussion. Building new schools, handling student growth and demanding Legislature’s assistance are, however.
“We’re going to do all we can,” Joyner said. “The children need it.”
The district will eventually provide “Balance the Checkbook” on its website, but until then encourages teachers, staff and parents to attend the school presentations.