By BOBBY HORN JR.
Layoffs and loss of some services are expected as North Forest ISD begins looking at ways of making up a $7.3 million budget shortfall.
During a special called meeting of board of trustees on Jan. 19, the district said that they will not be getting as much money from the state as previously expected so they would have to make up the lost revenue by reducing their M&O or maintenance and operations budget.
According to Interim Superintendent William Jones the Texas Education Agency (TEA) is withholding $7.3 million in state funds, saying that it overpaid the district for the 2006-2007. School districts receive funds from the state based on student enrollment. The state says that the school district over-reported its enrollment. Williams admitted that no one at the district had updated the enrollment figures that went to the state. Sources indicate that over the past five years the district had seen an over 3,000-student drop in enrollment.
In most districts when an emergency comes up such as a natural disaster or expected loss of state funds they can turn to their fund balance, which is a type of rainy day fund. This is not an option for North Forest. Williams said that overspending and inaccurate budgeting has left the district with a $5.1 million deficit in its fund balance.
In order to make up for the lost state funds Williams said that each department would have to come up with at least an 11% cut in their budget. How this will affect the approximately 1,400 district employees is yet to be determined. However, it is believed that cutting back services and non-employee related expenses would not be enough to make up the $7.3 million.
This month students returned to Forest Brook High School after attending classes at Smiley the first semester while repairs were made at their campus. One suggestion offered by Williams is that consolidating the students into one high school would cut costs. He also favored keeping the students of Hilliard and Tidwell Elementaries combined. The Tidwell campus was closed in October when mold was discovered in the school.
Financial troubles are nothing new to North Forest.
Last year the TEA began an investigation into FEMA funds sent to the district for school repairs. In 2001 $10 million was sent to the district to pay damages caused by Tropical Storm Allison. Later another $13 million was sent to the district. When the district was asked to document how the funds were spent it could not produce adequate records.
During this time the district also used school bonds that were supposed to go for new construction to make the repairs based on the promise that 75% of the money would be reimbursed if documented. The documentation did not come.
In March 2007 the TEA appointed a conservator to the district to oversee its finances. The same month the school board fire Superintendent Dr. James Simpson. The missing documentation occurred before Simpson came to the district.
Simpsons firing led to a wrongful termination lawsuit being filed against the district. Last week the board voted to rehire Simpson as superintendent.
The district also had unexpected building expenses with the mold remediation at Tidwell and then $1 million in repairs and renovation at Forest Brook High School following last summers vandalism.
By BOBBY HORN JR.