Pulaski County school district's budget shows shortfall

Report notes $19.7M reserve

Posted: October 6, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

The Pulaski County Special School District anticipates state and local revenue of nearly $155 million in 2017-18 and $156.9 million in expenditures, raising the potential for a draw from the $19,714,481 carried over from the past year.

The 12,116-student school system has sent to the state its annual budget that, for the last time, includes $20.8 million in special state desegregation aid.

Of that state desegregation money, $5.4 million will be passed on to the Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District that detached from the Pulaski Special District in 2016. The remainder of the funds -- $15.4 million -- will be used along with bond money and savings for facility construction costs in the school district, Denise Palmer, the district's chief financial officer, said Thursday.

The new budget comes just before a school district report is due Monday to a federal judge on construction spending -- including irregularities -- related to the new Mills High School, the renovation of the existing Mills campus for Fuller Middle School and the construction of a new Robinson Middle School.

The projected 2017-18 revenue for the district falls short of the $168 million in the preceding year, Palmer said. That includes a decrease to $81 million in regular state foundation aid, which is money the district can use for operating costs.

The drop in state aid is the result of a drop in the district's enrollment last school year compared with the previous year and with an increase in local assessed property values, Palmer said. Increases in assessed values can generate more local tax revenue for a district.

The district's budget this year includes an automatic experience or step increase to eligible employees for their additional year of work experience at a cost of $1.1 million, but no across-the-board pay raises. The district last raised salaries in 2010-11. There has been at least one year in which bonuses were paid to employees and Palmer did not rule out that possibility for this year. The district is continuing to pay $272 a month for employee health insurance and $45 a month for auxiliary insurance including dental and vision coverage.

Should the district have to draw from its reserves to meet all the expenses this school year, Palmer said she did not anticipate the reserves dropping below $17.2 million or 11 percent of expenditures.

The Pulaski County Special just last year exited five years of state control because of audit findings of mismanagement and annually declining reserves.

Interim Superintendent Janice Warren said Thursday that she does not anticipate the district's finances to attract state intervention.

"Not on my watch," Warren said. "We're making sure that our budget is at or above the 10 percent [in reserves] that the state likes to see."

The district, however, is being monitored on its school construction efforts by the federal court.

U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr., who asked for the school construction report, is the presiding judge in a 34-year-old Pulaski County school desegregation lawsuit.

The Pulaski County Special district remains a party in the lawsuit and under court monitoring of its efforts to equalize the condition of its school facilities. The district has newer buildings, such as Maumelle High and Chenal Elementary, in more affluent and predominantly white parts of the district and much older school buildings -- such as Mills and Fuller -- in parts of the district that have a higher proportions of black students.

District leaders had committed to the judge as far back as 2015 to spend $50 million on the new Mills -- which is underway and scheduled to open in August 2018 -- and $5 million on the renovation for Fuller Middle School.

In early September, Sam Jones, an attorney for the school district, reported to the judge that possible disparities between the funding and construction of the Mills and Robinson campuses needed to be investigated. The judge directed district leaders to report to him by Monday on whether the district has deviated from its commitment to provide equitable school facilities and, if so, what will be done about it.

On Thursday, Will Reid, the district's chief technology officer who is also a member of Warren's newly appointed construction team, said that the district's contract for building Mills is $37.8 million and that the district is restoring some of the features of the Mills project that had been removed or "value-engineered" out.

Warren said the district will meet its commitment of spending $50 million for Mills.

"We're making it right," Palmer said.

Changes to the Mills plan include lighting, window and school spirit enhancements at Mills' indoor athletic facility as well as upgrades to the quality of the new Mills auditorium, to the library/media center and to the parking lot, Reid said. Spaces to promote student collaboration will be added at the new Mills, he said.

Efforts are being made to make the athletic facility at Mills comparable to the new one at Robinson Middle and High schools, which are on Arkansas 10 in west Pulaski County. Both of the Mills and Robinson indoor practice fields are now in use as of late last month although the Robinson facility opened first.

Efforts are being made to make the quality of the auditorium at the new Mills comparable to the Maumelle High auditorium although the Mills auditorium will have a smaller capacity. Mills has an enrollment of 601 this year. Maumelle High's enrollment is 1,076.

The questions about the construction of Mills in comparison with Robinson Middle, enrollment 468, arose in the wake of changes in the district's leadership.

The district's School Board in July dismissed then-Superintendent Jerry Guess and the Allen Roberts law firm legal team. The board immediately named Warren as interim superintendent for this school year and reinstated Jones as the district's lead lawyer in the desegregation case. All that was followed by the resignation in September of Derek Scott, the district's executive director of operations.

In addition to the Mills and Robinson construction projects, the district is also planning the significant expansion of its Sylvan Hills High School campus in Sherwood. Voters approved the 13-year extension of an existing 14.8 mill tax levy to finance $65 million in bonds for the Sylvan Hills project.

Metro on 10/06/2017