Carroll ISD trustees are working to balance an estimated $83.2 million budget, but once again the board has been forced to consider one-time money, new fees, budget tightening and its fund balance to make ends meet.

"We started working on this coming year's budget as soon as we passed this past year's budget," board President Read Ballew said, "but tackling it early doesn't solve the issues that we have. The state has created quite a gap for us."

For the 2012-13 fiscal year, that gap is about $3 million. Last year's $82.4 million budget, which included a $4.5 million funding gap, was balanced without pulling from the district's fund balance.

And even after an estimated $14.8 million was recaptured by the state, about $608,000 was left over to roll back into district coffers. This year, however, Carroll ISD will not be so lucky.

Closing the gap

District spokeswoman Julie Thannum said that the district will tap into its fund balance to make up some of the shortfall, and the board continues to consider a number of revenue-producing and cost-cutting options.

"For me, is our goal to balance our budget or to provide the best education that we can?" board Vice President Sue Armstrong said. "We can make cuts, but at what cost to the students, the future job market, the labor force? So we've tried to keep cuts away from the classroom."

The only problem with that philosophy, Thannum said, is that it masks Carroll ISD's financial woes.

"As long as we do a good job of keeping it away from the classroom I don't think people realize there's a crisis," she said, "but let's be clear: the way the state is funding education would be leading a business to bankruptcy. Just because trustees are doing a good job of managing through that doesn't mean we're not hurting."

The district has already tightened its staffing models, trimming employees through retirements and attrition, and taken a look at charging parents a variety of fees for non-essential services to find balance.

Trustees have held off on a somewhat controversial "pay to play" fee that would charge students who participated in certain extracurricular activities, but this summer they approved a bus ridership fee that charges families $250 per bus rider, up to $500 per family.

Carroll ISD's property-wealthy status means it receives no state funding for its bus services, Ballew said, but charging for bus services was approved by the Legislature last year in an effort to allow districts more opportunities to plug holes created by the budget cuts.

TRE possibilities

The night this article went to press, trustees were expected to discuss the possibility of calling for a tax ratification election in mid-September. If agreed upon by the board, that ballot item — referred to as a "TRE" — would ask residents to approve a two-cent increase to the district's maintenance and operations tax rate — pushing it from $1.04 per $100 of valuation to $1.06.

Under state law, districts are allowed to set their M&O tax rate as high as $1.04 without voter input, and may add up to 13 cents to that rate with voter approval.

Above the $1.06 mark, however, additional tax revenues brought into the district are subject to Chapter 41, the state's "Robin Hood law" that redistributes money from property-wealthy districts to poorer districts.

Based on those facts, surveys of Carroll ISD taxpayers have shown strong support for a 2-cent TRE, but support drops dramatically for a TRE that would put the district's tax rate above $1.06 per $100 valuation.

A two-cent increase to the M&O tax rate amounts to an estimated $1.1 million bump to the district's budget annually. (See our website for an update.)

Staff constraints

In the state's current funding system, the primary way to receive more money is to grow the student population. Carroll ISD, however, is seeing its population decrease as children age out of the schools and their parents choose to stay in their homes.

Faced with less money coming in for students and the biennium's budget cuts, trustees are continuing to move forward with personnel cuts that adhere to tighter staffing models. So far, they have been able to accomplish those cuts through retirements and attritions, rather than laying employees off.

Carroll ISD employees are still feeling the pain of the cuts, though. Employees have gone as long as three years without raises and meanwhile seen large increases in their insurance costs.

To help soften the blow of a 9.5 percent hike in insurance costs last year, the district gave employees $650 each in one-time supplemental payments.

Most employees will see an additional 6 percent increase to their insurance costs this year, and trustees in the coming weeks will discuss cushioning that by giving them a small raise. The board feels strongly about giving raises, Ballew said, but approving them would have an ongoing impact to the embattled budget.

"And if you think about it, if we give a 2 percent raise, that's $1 million," he said. "So if we go ahead with the TRE in November and it passes, well, that just used all that money and we're back in the same place we are now."