Budget Shortfall May Force State Takeover of Alabama District

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A financially troubled school district outside Birmingham could be the first Alabama district taken over by the state under an accountability law passed last year.

The state earlier this month gave officials in the Fairfield city school system until March 15 to come up with a plan for fixing the district's massive budget problems or face state intervention. The 2,300-student district is projected to end the fiscal year with a $1 million shortfall in its $12 million budget.

The accountability law requires state education officials to determine whether any districts are foundering either financially or academically.

Edward R. Richardson, the state superintendent, said in an interview last week that when the education department finishes its financial investigations, as many as six of the state's 127 districts may get warnings similar to the one sent to Fairfield.

Some districts have kept such sloppy books that auditors could not even determine at first whether they had financial problems, Mr. Richardson said.

To identify those districts failing academically, officials will look at results of the Stanford Achievement Test administered this spring. Based on last year's scores, however, about 10 districts could be given a year to improve because their students scored at or below the 22nd percentile on the test, Mr. Richardson said.

Mr. Richardson said it is not new for districts to be in poor financial shape or for the state to step in. But the new law empowers the state schools chief to take a stronger role.

Size of Central Staff

Fairfield's problems came to light in December after the district had trouble paying its employees. But no employees have gone without paychecks, said Joseph B. Morton, a deputy state superintendent.

As recently as September 1994, Fairfield had a budget surplus of nearly $340,000. But a year later, the district had a $231,000 deficit.

Among the problems the state found in Fairfield, Mr. Richardson said, was that the district employed 25 central-office staff members while a district its size typically hires 10 to 15. As of December, the district was paying salaries and fringe benefits that exceeded the amounts adopted in its budget by $500,000.

The district faces a $31,000 penalty for ending the 1994-95 year with a budget deficit. If it ends the current year with a $1 million deficit, it will have to pay an additional $250,000 fine.

The school board has suspended the superintendent, Simpson Berry, with pay, pending a hearing on whether there is cause for further action.

Telephone calls to Fairfield officials were not returned last week.

Vol. 15, Issue 23

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