As Auburn City Schools students and teachers start a new school year, the Board of Education is planning for the future.

This week, the board began reviewing the school system's proposed Fiscal Year 2020 budget along with its five-year capital projects plan.

School starts today and already enrollment has increased by about 230 students as of Tuesday. Last year enrollment reached 8,727.

An official enrollment count will not be recorded until 20 days into the school year, and when it is, the data will also be provided to Cooperative Strategies, a company that works with ACS to project future enrollment, which in turn influences the capital projects schedule.

Phase 1 of the current facilities plan includes new classroom buildings at Cary Woods Elementary School and Drake Middle School, a new gym at East Samford School, the construction of a new elementary school to be paired with Yarbrough Elementary School, the construction of a second high school and a new classroom building at Auburn Junior High School. The renovations to Cary Woods and Drake Middle began this summer.

In the plan, the second high school is slated to open in 2024, but ACS Assistant Superintendent and CFO Dennis Veronese told the school board during a budget work session this week that if increases in enrollment are less than projected, opening a second high school could be pushed back.

"Based on last year's projections, it appears we could possibly move it out to 2025," he said.

ACS will want to evaluate this year's enrollment before any decision is made, and if it is determined that the school is needed by 2024, planning for the second high school would need to start in the spring, he said.

"It's coming. Our goal is to evaluate and push that back as far as we can," Veronese said, adding that each grade, other than 11th and 12th, is pushing 700 students. "So, it's coming."

Part of the five-year capital plan also includes upgrades to technology that would enhance the safety and security across all ACS campuses. Technologies being evaluated include that of access control, entrance keypads and camera systems.

Veronese said ACS is evaluating a system, currently used by Auburn University, that would allow administration to see images of anyone outside a school entrance.

"It's a huge project," Veronese said.

Currently, the city of Auburn issues bonds for ACS capital projects, and those projects are paid through local revenue sources, like the Special 5 Mill Tax Fund. Veronese mentioned that the school system is working to create a capital projects fund to help foot more costs in the future.

One of ACS's local revenue sources is the 16 Mill special school tax. The fund is used to pay some debt, principal and interest and has also been used to pay for some basic operational costs.

As other local revenue sources, like the 1.25 pennies of sales tax, have increased revenue for the school system annually, ACS has had to draw less out of the 16 Mill fund and aims to set some of the fund's monies aside for a future capital projects fund.

"We're trying over time to see if we can transition that to a capital project fund or a debt service fund," Veronese said. "That would take many, many years, but ... keeps us from having to rely on an outside entity."

He also mentioned that for each fiscal year's ending fund balance, monies in excess of a two-month reserve are set aside for capital projects.

Aside from enrollment and facilities needs, other items that influence the annual budgeting process are pupil/teacher ratios, salary and benefits expenses and state and local funding.

In a budget presentation to the board by ACS Director of Finance Liz Springer, the system's pupil/teacher ratio was reported to be staying just below the desired ratio for each grade. The district-wide ratio is 15:1. ACS employs 590 teacher units, and for FY20, a 4 percent state-mandated pay increase will be factored into the budget for each.

The projected ending fund balance for FY2020 is $17.58 million, which leaves about a two-and-a-half month reserve.

Residents can learn more about the school system's General Fund, local revenue sources and projected enrollment, among other budget components, in two upcoming budget public hearings.

Public hearings will be held regarding the FY2020 budget on Sept. 3 at 8:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. The morning meeting will take place at the Central Office Technology Board Room, and the evening meeting will take place at the Auburn Junior High Multi-Media Room.

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