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CISD debates budget-crunching options

By Scott Harvey

Commerce – The Commerce ISD is exploring a number of options for cutting its budget amidst a projected budget shortfall for FY 2010-2011.

The district is again expected to dip into its fund balance (savings account) to balance the budget, but would like to take out as little as possible.

At the end of the 2009-2010 school year, the CISD fund balance stood at $3.4 million. That number may seem large, but when you take into account the Texas Education Agency's (TEA) recommendation that each school district have at least three months worth of operation funds in reserves it appears very small. Monthly operation expenses at Commerce ISD are approximately $1 million, meaning the district only has roughly 400,000 available in reserves.

In order to cut the fat, board members are contemplating several options which include but are not limited to not filling vacant faculty/staff positions, a possible decrease in faculty/staff and/or a 13 cent tax rate hike.

Like most districts throughout the state, several uncontrollable factors are working against Commerce, such as a decrease in state funding and a loss of revenue from a decrease in property values.

If fact, it is projected that over 50 percent of all school districts in the State of Texas will be operating at a budget deficit for this upcoming school year.

The H1N1 flu in 2009 severely hurt school districts across the nation, bringing down their average daily attendance (ADA) which, in turn, decreases state funding.

According to Superintendent Blake Cooper, for every percentage point the district's ADA goes down, that's a nearly $100,000 loss in funding.

CISD has been working diligently to find creative ways to save money and boost revenue. The district's energy conservation program, started last fall, had saved over $75,000 as of early this year and a recent food service contract is expected to save thousands.

Additionally, administration has asked all departments to cut their own budgets by three percent.

During the district's special meeting on June 7, CISD Director of Finance John Walker encouraged board members to think outside the box when it came to saving money. Options such as mowing every other week instead of once a week, providing shared staff services and shortening bus service to within two miles of city limits were given.

While the district is looking to minimize the deficit amount, they're also looking to minimize the impact these cuts will have on students and not to affect the positive direction in which they're heading.

"We're looking at every avenue we can without damaging momentum," said Superintendent Blake Cooper.

Keeping district morale high was also a top priority during Monday's meeting. Last year, state stimulus dollars allowed for step raises for all teachers in the amount of $800 each. However, officials were unclear how or if step dollars were available from the state this year, or if it would need to come out of the district's budget.

Perhaps one of the more creative revenue-generating ideas brought up Monday was that of an option school to allow individuals who've not yet earned a diploma to do so. Classes would be instructed by current personnel.

"It can save kids and generate revenue," said Cooper.

An internal study had indicated that a 25 student boost in ADA would increase revenue by $65,000. Cooper says if the option school had up to 20 students during both morning and afternoon sessions the program could pay for itself; and increase state funding.

Board members agreed there was "no good answer" when it comes to cutting budget. Officials will crunch the numbers and discuss in more detail during another special session scheduled for June 14. Final decision on any/all proposed budget cuts will come during the district's regular meeting on June 21.

A thorough power point outlining the district's financial situation is available at www.commerceisd.org