BLOG: Huntsville City School Board votes to pass budget

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - The Huntsville City School Board approved its 2019 budget with a 4-1 vote Thursday. Board member Pam Hill was the lone dissenting vote.

The budget is one that leaders say is a positive step in the right direction. It's not a deficit budget, but there are still millions left to make up the required month's operating reserve the district needs to have in place. You can read more about it in our previous coverage.

"The budget will reflect revenues in excess of expenditures by 1,827,811.56," said Bob Hagood, Deputy Superintendent of Finance.

He did present one change, which included new information brought by the City of Huntsville Finance Director who attended the budget hearing last week.

"She noticed the debt service was off. There were some things listed that had actually been paid off," he explained.

Hagood said that debt service increased from around $25 million to just over $30 million because of the changes, but this does not affect the bottom line.

The budget does reflect the first round of state and local raises the district promised in the past.

Because the 2019 budget does still project the district will be under its required reserve of nearly $18 million, there is still more work to do to recover funds. Huntsville City Schools is on a mission to cut costs to make up the remaining reserve.

They've already done so with non-payroll cuts to multiple departments. But the central office has not ruled out job cuts down the road if more savings aren't found.

"I've said many times that my goal is to protect the classroom and the teachers, because they are the most valuable resource. So we are looking at all avenues, like attrition. Looking at the central office staff first and foremost," Superintendent Christie Finley commented.

So what comes next is hard work to figure out where the district is spending its money, and whether it is spending too much on certain programs or contracts.

"We're looking for cost savings. We are looking at every single program we have," Elisa Ferrell, Board President, said. "We can have frequent amendments to the budget so we can start reflecting those cost savings as we go along."

She said that Hagood told them he expects to be able to make up more than what is projected in the budget the board passed Thursday.

"Mr. Hagood seems to think that with the current spending freeze that we have right now, we can get close to our reserve amount. So by the end of the month we might be a couple million dollars more than we are now, just from halting all spending for the next few weeks," she said.

During the budget hearing, board member Michelle Watkins recommended a hiring freeze.

That decision, though, would have to come from the administration. Finley said that if people retire or resign, the district will not make an effort to fill a lot of those jobs. But she wouldn't call it a hiring freeze just yet.

The State Department of Education sent in two financial officials to look through the district's documents to help them evaluate, Ferrell explained.

"We are getting opinions from people on our staff, but also opinions from people in Montgomery about what we should do moving forward," she said.

"We are looking at every possible way to ensure we are being good stewards of our money," Finley said.

But she doesn't want anyone to worry.

"As we look at trying to correct our finances, we don't want anyone to be in fear of losing their job. What we want them to do is make sure they are coming to work everyday doing what's right for kids." She added, "We are trying to reframe and refocus where our next steps are by sharing our strategic plan.

Finley shared that plan at the meeting Thursday, and said there would be a fiscal responsibility part to it. She is also planning meetings around the district to talk about the plan with parents and stakeholders.

"This budget allows us to get back to the work we've been doing, which is focusing on student achievement," she said. "I am excited about meeting with the community and bringing stakeholders in and really reestablishing that trust."

Finley said there are challenges in the district, but she sees them as opportunities to improve.

"We are where we are," Finley said. "We didn't get there overnight. But at the end of the day we have a job to do, and that's make sure all our students are college and career ready."

The talks will continue. The evaluation will move forward. Finley said with her at the helm, the hard work is worth digging into.

"There will be many more discussions about which direction we take," Hagood said.

But Hill had indicated earlier in the meeting that she might object to the budget when the vote happened.

"I find it funny that we keep finding problems with the budget," she commented before addressing the teachers in the audience. "If I don't approve this budget in a little while, it is not about you," she said. "It is about the kids, because that's why I ran."

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