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NACS weighs fixes for student surplus

General fund, buses among major issues in budget proposal

– Although Northwest Allen County Schools is glad to welcome more students each year, the enrollment growth creates challenges as the district tries to balance the books, officials said.

The past two years, the district has grown by more than 300 students, creating cramped classrooms, struggles to find seats on school buses and a need for more teachers.

This year, the district will advertise a more than $64.7 million budget for 2014, with the majority of the money going toward the general fund, Business Manager Bill Mallers said. The school board gave permission Monday to advertise the budget. That fund, which has an advertised budget of more than $38.9 million, has seen an increase in recent years due to enrollment growth, he said.

During the previous school year, the district’s enrollment grew by 158 students and during the 2011-12 school year, there were 160 additional students. The district won’t know this year’s enrollment until next month.

The district advertised a budget of about $64.7 million for the 2012-13 school year and the approved budget was about $4.4 million less, Mallers said.

“These are advertised budgets at this point in time and will end up a little lower,” Mallers said about this year’s budget. “That total can always be brought down, but it can’t be raised.”

The district also lost about $3.3 million due to property tax caps, and Mallers said the district will use that number as an estimate for what they might lose in 2014.

“We really won’t know until everything is calculated, but that’s the estimate we are using at this point,” he said.

State law also caps the amount a district can spend on buses, another problem for a district that is transporting more students than in previous years, Mallers said.

Last school year, the district replaced six buses and postponed the purchase of a seventh because of the cap, he said.

This year, the district hoped to replace nine buses, including the one from last year, but because of the caps, the district will not have money available to cover its needs. The advertised bus replacement budget is $960,400.

“We did petition the DLGF (Department of Local Government Finance) to see if we could increase the maximum,” Mallers said. “But we’ll have to carry over what we aren’t able to purchase in 2014.”

Mallers expects to hear back about the petition early next year.

The district’s transportation fund is also a tight squeeze with new students meaning new routes, new drivers and more money spent on fuel. The district budgeted $3,075,400 for the transportation fund.

“We still have to provide transportation for the students, … which becomes a concern when we can’t cover it with the transportation fund,” he said.

The board on Monday discussed the possibility of an additional levy to cover the cost of all nine buses, but no decision was made, Mallers said.

Mallers said the one major advantage to this year’s budget is that the debt service account – which includes the debt the district has acquired in recent years for construction projects – has begun to level out.

“In debt service, we have hit a point where we are relatively flat with debt service payments, … and we can begin moving forward,” he said.