Forsyth County’s school board passed its tentative 2014 budget Thursday night.
The nearly $281.5 million spending plan shows both an increase in revenue and expenses over the current year’s budget, as well as — like last year — a shortfall of about $5.7 million.
A year ago, after approving the 2013 budget, board members predicted the system’s finances would be in worse shape this spring.
However, chief finance officer Dan Jones noted that the county’s preliminary tax digest shows a gain of nearly 3 percent. If that holds, it would be the first increase since 2008.
Between state, federal and local funding, the system is collecting about $13.6 million more than last year.
But there are also additional expenses, particularly with teacher health care and retirement benefits, which total about $2.4 million.
The 2014 budget also calls for adding 80 new teaching positions, 15 bus drivers, one assistant principal and a clerical position for a total of about $6.3 million.
Having slightly increased class sizes each year to cut down on the need for new teachers, human resources director Candy Norton said the system has reached its limit.
“This year, we didn’t feel like we could increase that number again, because we felt like we’ve maxed that out, just in terms of purely classroom space and what we feel is best for instruction.”
Currently the elementary school teacher-to-student ratio on average is about one per 23.75 students, based on regular education classrooms.
In middle and high schools, that ratio increases to one teacher for every 30 students.
While Forsyth is not bound to state class-size mandates, the county’s ratios all fall within those guidelines, Norton said.
Last year, teachers received a 1 percent pay increase — the first in four years — across the board.
However, there’s no pay hike planned for 2014. The tentative budget will also be the fifth in a row with 187 school days instead of 190. The trend began with cuts in state funding.
Norton said she would like to restore those three days, along with a cost-of-living adjustments and step increases to the 2014 budget before next month, when it’s officially adopted, but that’s unlikely.
“We just cannot afford it in this economy,” Norton said.
Other cost increases in the proposed 2014 budget include special education, adding 55 portable buildings to help alleviate crowded schools and supplementing the aging bus fleet.
The biggest cost, however, will continue to be in new staffing and the rising costs of health and retirement benefits, Jones said.
“We’ve had increases in health insurance every year and teacher retirement went up,” Jones said. “It just keeps going up.”
As it did last year, the school system will pull the $5.7 million shortfall from its fund balance, or reserves. That fund is how the system covers its operating costs until tax revenue starts coming in November.
According to Jones, there’s nearly $40 million in reserves, so the system will still be in good financial shape.