IRSD citizens group debates the issues, reviews new budget

The Indian River School District has found some new eyes to look at the budget, and they’ve got some ideas. The Citizens Budget Oversight Committee convened on Aug. 21 for their first look at the IRSD’s proposed $151 million preliminary budget for the 2018 fiscal year.

This summer, they received preliminary Department of Education training on education finances, and they had a meet-and-greet. But the Aug. 21 meeting was the first time they rolled up their sleeves — for 2.5 hours — and really examined the proposed IRSD finances.

Their mission is to meet quarterly to review and provide input on district finances, as part of Superintendent Mark Steele’s mission for better public transparency.

“You’ll be able to see how exactly money is spent,” especially as the year continues, he told the 10-member group. They will report to the school board regularly.

“That’s the whole reason you have a citizens’ committee,” said IRSD Business Director Jan Steele. “You have somebody else looking at the information and then sharing their thoughts.”

The volunteers also want to keep the public in the loop, answering questions from their neighbors.

“I want to take responsibility and accountability for trying to be transparent,” said Rose Watkins.

At least the public will know what to expect, especially if the IRSD needs to plan for another referendum in four or five years, which Jan Steele recommends.

Previously, it seemed that only one person truly understood the whole budget, but Jan Steele is teaching everyone in the IRSD administration to better understand finances.

The school board is likely to approve the preliminary budget at their Aug. 28 board meeting. The final budget will be approved when enrollment numbers are finalized later in autumn.

But the IRSD Finance Committee (which includes mostly administrators, but is open to the public) still has work to do. The State cut school budgets, and the IRSD has only eliminated $800,000 of the total $2 million they have to cut.

While most federal funding is based on low-income populations, state funding is based on enrollment. Currently, the IRSD has about 10,500 students, but Steele anticipates up to 10,800 students this year.

State funding is based on the Sept. 30 head count. All students, but especially those with special needs or IEPs, are especially being encouraged to enroll before Sept. 30 so that the IRSD gets enough funding to properly serve them.

Local money is based on property taxes. The rates are set in July, and bills were mailed in August and are due in September. The IRSD will get most of its revenue in October, with late and delinquent funds trickling in year-round.

The committee briefly debated why the district is moving $5 million in funds into its reserves when teachers were asked to delay buying classroom supplies. But the IRSD has drained its reserves in just a few years, due to enrollment increases, special programs, salary negotiations, unexpected construction overages and more.

Currently, the rainy-day reserve fund only has about $3 million.

“Payroll is $1.2 million every two weeks,” Jan Steele said. In an emergency, the reserve fund would only pay staff for about a month.

“I have slashed budgets. We went to our employee groups and renegotiated contracts with our teachers and secretaries. … We have to have that $5 million carryover,” Jan Steele said. Moreover, she said, the State “told us this year to plan for the same next year … another $2 million [cut].”

If the IRSD couldn’t meet its summertime financial obligations until the October deposit, they would risk a State takeover. Jan Steele said she’s been on “pins and needles” to get the district to that deadline, but it will still be tight. This should be IR’s fiscally tightest year, and they plan to rebuild the reserve to $15 million by 2020.

“We’re going to make darn sure we’re financially secure,” Mark Steele said, and if his business director advises more savings, he’s going to do it. This year, the goal has been to cut — but not eliminate — programs, although it’s been a painful process.

The committee brainstormed ways to better educate the public, including with social media. The superintendent has allowed principals to use Facebook Live for communicating with their schools, and he personally is planning several broadcasts this year.

Members of the public are already sharing concerns with committee members, such as teacher frustrations over school supplies. Jan Steele clarified that schools just got the OK to buy the bare necessities this month but will wait until October to stock up for the year.

Committee member Chris White questioned whether that was properly advertised to teachers who are at least in some cases frantically buying supplies out of their own pockets and through public donation wish lists. The group discussed ways to further streamline supply purchases.

Committee member Justen Albright suggested creating a development office to solicit and manage large donations. If Mountaire regularly donates to IRSD’s low-income student programs, and Schell Brothers gave Sussex Academy a swimming pool, there may be room for the IRSD to more actively seek public partnerships.

That’s especially true when considering industries, such as the poultry industry, that are contributing to the influx of workers (and thereby, children) in the districts, and who may also want good schools to attract executives to the Eastern Shore. Indeed, the Seaford School District wanted for nothing when DuPont was headquartered there, Steele mused.

The Citizens Budget Oversight Committee includes Albright, Gary Brittingham, Morley Daehn Jr., Kathleen Evans, Greg Goldman, Linda Lewis, Dave Marvel, Austin Short, Rose Watkins and White. They will be joined by Superintendent Mark Steele and Director of Business Jan Steele.

This year, the committee will meet quarterly, at 6 p.m. on Tuesdays, Oct. 17, Jan. 16, April 17 and July 17. Meetings are open to the public and will be held at the Indian River Educational Complex, 31 Hoosier Street, Selbyville.

The fiscal year began on July 1. The draft budget is online at (Select “Aug. 28, 2017,” then select item 8.05 “FY 2018 Budget.” The document includes a glossary of terms.