BUFORD — Balancing the current budget was a daunting task for the Forsyth County school system.
With rising health insurance costs and the opening of a new school in August, the fiscal year 2013 budget likely won’t be any easier.
The Board of Education got a head start on the process last week during its annual planning retreat at Lake Lanier Islands.
No votes took place during the two-day gathering Thursday and Friday. Rather, it was an opportunity to discuss challenges and options for the future.
Along with staff members, the board discussed the budget, as well as other topics such as staffing, district accreditation and training.
Still, the budget was the hot topic Thursday, particularly given the rising costs and declining revenues.
Dan Jones, the system’s finance director, said the projected enrollment for the 2012-13 school year is 38,560, or an increase of about 3.4 percent from the current year.
But despite adding students, there will be less money to help cover the population increase.
In addition to higher health insurance costs, officials expect retirement costs to rise and property tax collections to drop.
Overall, officials anticipate having nearly $8 million less for the fiscal year 2013 budget than the current year.
Property tax collections are expected to fall by about 3 percent, which translates to nearly $4 million.
Forsyth County School Superintendent Buster Evans cautioned that figure could be even larger.
However, the real challenge to the system over the next few years will come in the form of rising health insurance rates.
In July, the system’s rate for non-certified employees will increase to $446 per employee per month, a difference of $150.
The cost will go up another $150 each year for the next two years, Jones said.
The retirement rate is also on the rise, Jones said, with the system facing an increase of nearly $1.9 million.
For the current school year, the board last summer raised the school system’s overall tax rate about 2 mills.
The hike included a 1 mill increase to the system’s debt services, or bond, millage rate to generate enough money to pay off another year of voter-approved bond programs from 1992, ‘95 and ‘98.
A mill, the rate used to calculate property taxes, is equal to $1 for each $1,000 in assessed property value. Assessed value is 40 percent of actual market value.
The board also increased its maintenance and operations millage rate, used to fund the budget.
During their retreat, the board members discussed various options for squeezing every dollar for next school year.
Those include shifting teacher schedules, potentially outsourcing non-teacher jobs and reviewing the amount the system pays in health insurance costs for employees.
One area that’s unlikely to change is staffing, said Candy Norton, human resources director.
Norton said the goal is to maintain the current staffing budget for next year, even with the addition of Kelly Mill Elementary School.
She presented information on student-teacher ratios that could make it work.
Under the proposal, the ratio in elementary schools would increase to 24 students for every teacher, instead of 23.5.
For both middle and high schools, the rate would increase from 22.5 to 23.5 students per teacher.
The board also took a look back at the recent shift in school attendance zones.
Members noted what changes had worked and offered suggestions on ways to continue improving the process.
Those ideas included adding maps with subdivisions. Also discussed was at what point the board should get involved and how soon community feedback should be sought.