The Elmore County Board of Education has been intentional about positioning itself for future success, and the district’s Chief Financial Officer Jason Mann has played a key role in the process.
The board started the new year with an increased operations fund balance and millions less to pay toward its debt services, Mann said. In an effort to protect the board’s tax dollars in an uncertain economy, Mann said Superintendent Richard Dennis and the BOE decided to make an effort to retire three outstanding debts.
Two of those bonds dated back to 2012 and amounted to $10.7 million. The third, for the installation of LED lighting, was for $1.1 million. Mann said the bonds from 2012 were paid off five years early, which saved the board $604,756 in interest payments. The board saved $80,000 by paying off the bond for the LED lights three years early.
Paying off those debts decreased the board’s annual debt service from the $6 million to $7 million range to $3.5 million to $4 million annually for the next four to five years.
“We were essentially able to cut our annual debt service in half, and paying them off early allowed us to save money in the process,” Mann said. “In an uncertain economy we want to make sure that we’re in a position where we will not have to consider laying people off.”
Mann said the district’s three bonds were paid off using proceeds from the state’s Public School and College Authority bond issuance in 2020. Elmore County Schools received $13.7 million from the PSCA bond and spent the majority of the money to pay off debt. The district has about $3 million left to use toward new projects.
Additionally, with funds allocated to schools through the federally funded CARES Act, Mann said the district was able to offset local expenditures and grow its operations fund from enough to cover 1.75 months of operation to 2.26 months of operation.
“With the tax property re-evaluations last year, we saw an increase in ad valorem taxes, which has also contributed to putting us in a good position financially,” Mann said. “That, and the fact that the Elmore County Commission was gracious enough to grant us a portion of the county’s online sales tax revenue. That has helped, too.”
Mann said the amount of money the BOE received from property taxes increased by a total of $609,000 from fiscal year 2018-2019 to FY 2019-2020.
“That money will be coming in steadily, so we’re now getting more than half a million dollars of new money that’s not going to debt services,” Mann said. “We can now that those resources and put it toward providing additional programs for students.”
It was shared at an October County Commission meeting that the Commission collected $1.2 million in online sales taxes in 2019 and committed to give 25% of that to its schools systems, Elmore County Schools and Tallassee City Schools.
The Elmore County Commission was one of only a handful of county governments to allocate some of the money to its schools.
But despite the district’s financial gains, it still ranks low when it comes to per pupil spending, Mann said. Out of the state’s 137 school systems, Elmore County lands at No. 133 when it comes to per pupil spending. That means 132 school systems spend more money on a per student basis than Elmore County does.
Elmore County falls below the state average when it comes to per pupil spending. The county spends $8,756 per student, according to data from the Alabama Association of School Boards. The state average is $10,092 per student.
According to the data, $5,236 per student is the lowest amount of money spent by a school district, while $14,102 is the highest. The national average is $12,978.
Ideally, Mann said the school system would like to fall somewhere in the middle, in the 50s to 60s, rather than being at the bottom of the list. However, to do that the system would need more influx of consistent money, preferably in the form of tax dollars.
“We’re not rich by means,” Mann said. “We’re stretching a penny as far as it will go. We’re being fiscally responsible with the money that we do have and we’re just trying to position ourselves to be in the most stable financial situation that we can.”
This summer, Mann said the board hopes to be able to provide in-person programs for students who have fallen behind while enrolled in virtual school. Other priorities include creating STEM labs at each middle school and increasing the virtual school program at the EDGE.
Moving forward, Mann said he will continue looking for opportunities to improve the district’s financial standings.
“I’ll always be looking at every opportunity to eliminate old debt and to get new money,” he said. “Hopefully the community will soon get to see the results of our efforts in the forms of new programs and structural improvements.”