D29 pulls from reserves to balance budget

First Byline: 
Jonathan Vickery - Managing Editor

Some higher than expected costs from the last fiscal year, such as health care and overtime, caused Williston District 29 to dip into their savings.
During their August 19 meeting, the school board approved to use $92,780 of their fund balance to balance the 2013-14 budget. Finance director Charles Everhart said the district still has a "healthy fund balance", which budget documents place at more than $2 million.
Everhart told the board the action was needed due to increased costs in four categories: overtime, substitute employee pay, healthcare and energy.
Overtime has been "very expensive," said Everhart, adding how in some cases it's better financially to hire full-time employees. Costs have been especially high for bus drivers, which is why the district recently increased the starting hourly pay to $10 to lure and keep drivers.
Paying substitutes to temporarily fills positions of employees who are out of work for various reasons also adds up. "We are certainly paying the cost of two people to do the job of one person when it comes to subs," said Everhart of how they have to pay the employee's salary and benefits along with that of the sub.
This year's harsh winter, including ice storms, caused the district to use more energy. "Generally speaking the winter months is where the savings come from so that on an annual basis your budgeted amount is met," said Everhart, however, that wasn't the case this year.
"There was one additional cost factor that surprised me more than others and that had to do with our actual health care cost," said Everhart to the board.
While health care is expensive, Everhart said their mix of coverage "changed significantly" last year. This could include an employee adding a new spouse or child to their health care plan, which equals more money out of the district's pocket. For just an employee covered under the plan the district pays $332 a month, though that number goes up to $823 a month for a full family to be covered, according to Everhart. It is hard to calculate health care costs when the board approves the budget in the summer because open enrollment for health care doesn't occur until October.
The district has budgeted for higher energy and health care costs for the current 2014-15 year, though Everhart said they'll have to wait and see how accurate they were.
The board also heard updates from the technology, instructional services and special services departments.
Technology director Don Wical said they did a lot of upgrades over the summer, including new computer labs, converting to a new network, repurposing computers, and installing surveillance cameras in buildings and on buses.
Dr. Carol Lenderman, the district's director of instruction, assessment and accountability, said preliminary data shows the high school had a 92 percent graduation rate last year, though final confirmation won't come until November. She also explained how federal money is funding some teaching salaries, parenting programs and professional development for staff.
In an update about the alternative school, which currently has four students, Jeriah Owens, the director of special services, explained several changes they've made. This includes increasing face time students have with teachers, moving the start time up an hour, and hiring an additional teacher and a full-time school psychologist. Owens said the changes are aimed at "making sure our students in the alternative school are successful."
In other news:
• Requests from three former students to be awarded high school diplomas under Act 155 were approved. The 2014 law eliminates the high school exit exam and allows students who did not receive diplomas solely due to not passing the exit exam to petition their local school board for one.
The district has had 11 students petition for diplomas, though two were denied for not being eligible while four others were from students who never went to District 29. So far, five diploma requests have been granted, including the three who were approved last week, two who would have been part of the class of 2011 and one from 2002, according to Lenderman.
•Following a recommendation from the facility study committee, the board approved to invite three of the firms that submitted proposals about the district's facility needs to make presentations at the board's September meeting. Cummings Construction Management from Columbia, Jumper Carter Sease from West Columbia, and MB Kahn Construction Co. from Columbia were selected as the top three by Everhart and board members Charles Melton and Michael Hutto.
•The board approved the transfer of eight students into the district. Two are homeschooled students who live in Barnwell District 45 while the other six are coming from Aiken County.
•Three board members were recognized for reaching Level 2 with the S.C. School Boards Association's Boardsmanship Institute. Hutto, Melton and Billy Williams each received a pin and certificate.
•After a busy summer, which included feeding 2,400 meals to children through a free federal program, Superintendent Dr. Tom Siler said they had a successful opening for the school year. Enrollment was 890 the first day, though it rose to 923 the second day of school.