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Hartselle City Schools ends fiscal year with increased operating balance despite pandemic

At its regular board meeting Nov. 2, the Hartselle City Schools Board of Education heard some good news about the school system’s financial standings from Chief School Financial Officer Bradley Colburn.

Colburn said the State of Alabama requires a minimum of a one-month operating reserve in the bank as a rainy-day fund, but Hartselle City Schools currently holds a 3.48 months operating balance.

“The response for a one-month reserve stems from when the economy collapsed in 2008, and the rolling reserve and rainy-day fund were created at the state level,” Colburn said. “Trying to establish the outcome of the fiscal year during COVID-19 was so unpredictable because we were spending so much money getting ready for school to start back, and we were not sure how much we would get in federal grants.”

Colburn said in addition to purchasing personal protection equipment, cleaning supplies, Plexiglas for classrooms, temperature screening devices and sanitation equipment, a lot of funds went toward preparing teachers and students alike for potential changes in learning methods.

“We had to buy a bunch of Chromebooks so we could go to a one-to-one technology program, and believe it or not, there are a lot of teachers and students who do not have personal devices or Internet at home, so we provided MiFi devices as well as laptops to make sure they were covered,” he said.

“That created a huge influx of expenditures with no revenue coming in because the economy had shut down … For all those things to happen and for us to end the year better than we have since I’ve been here, that’s phenomenal.”

Colburn said the system will cap the funds where they are now, adding there is intent with all the money in the bank.

“We’re gearing up to put a new HVAC system in Burleson, we’re gearing up to begin the planning phase of the new Crestline Elementary … We’re going to need some money set aside to make sure we have all our ducks in a row before we take out a $20-$25 million bond for a new school building,” he said.

Colburn said he amended the original budget for this fiscal year in the spring before the true impact of COVID-19 was known.

“For our target to still be within 2 percent of what we projected in May, knowing COVID was still happening, is outstanding,” he said. “We had to hire additional people. We had a lot to do in August to prepare for the school year on a budget that we prepared in April and May, and we didn’t know how things we’re going to turn out.”

Colburn said he had to push $480,000 from the general fund budget into the Child Nutrition Program budget just to “keep it afloat.”

“That’s where we saw the worst hit,” Colburn said. “You have to be feeding kids, especially if you’re a school system like ours. We are not federally reimbursed like some of the more impoverished systems, and that program is dependent on the number of meals sold. So, when we don’t have kids eating, we don’t have money coming in to pay the salaries.”

Colburn said he attributes the positive numbers to sales tax from the City of Hartselle and Morgan County being on the rise this year.

“It’s unbelievable right now, the growth we’ve had,” he said. “Total local revenue was up 4 percent this year as compared to last year. Sales tax is up 6.49 percent, and you’re talking about a time period that includes two months where everything was shut down and hardly anyone was buying anything.

“We’re still fighting that simplified sellers use tax battle in court, so we didn’t receive anything from when people bought online,” Colburn added. “This money is local.”

He said motor vehicle taxes are up almost 11 percent “and that’s huge. That comes from growth and increased population.”

“Local revenue is astronomical here, and we grew our bottom line by $1.4 million,” Colburn added. “Last year, by comparison, we grew by about $275,000, and essentially our expenditures remained flat or slightly increased (less than 5 percent) as compared to last year, due to those COVID-19 grants coming through, and came in at 98.92 percent at what we budgeted.”

Colburn said Hartselle City Schools will receive more than 1.2 million in CARES Act funding.

“We spent less than we expected, and we brought in 102.25 percent of what we budgeted, which puts us in a really good place.”