ATHENS — Like every school district across the country, the Athens Area School District is facing a challenge in terms of coming up with a balanced budget for the 2020-2021 school year as the COVID-19 pandemic wreaks havoc on the economy.

New AASD Business Manager Brendon Hitchcock presented the latest budget proposal to the school board on Tuesday night. The spending proposal currently sits at $40,619,000, but in that plan the district is facing a deficit of over $1.7 million.

“The process was a little bit challenging just because the COVID-19 pandemic has forced every school district to kind of redesign their budget,” Hitchcock said. “At this point in the year, many (school districts), even in March, were well down the process to preparing budgets and with all the changes to the national, state and local economy, revenue assumptions obviously made us rethink and assume some declines in local revenue.”

In order to make up for some of that deficit, the budget includes a 1/2 mill increase in property taxes. Athens residents would be looking at an increase from 50.3 mills to 50.8 mills. The value of a 1/2 mill in the school district is $127,740, according to Hitchcock.

The budget deficit could be less if the school district is awarded more money from the CARES Act stimulus. Athens could be getting as much as $495,000 from those funds, but the school district is not counting on that money.

“There’s some uncertainty in the federal stimulus monies and how the state will allocate those to school districts, so it hasn’t been a standard process,” Hitchcock said. “We’ve really had to redesign and reengineer with these new revenue assumptions, but it is what it is and I think we’ve been well-equipped to do it.”

After his presentation, the school board asked Hitchcock and Superintendent Craig Stage to look at ways to bring down that deficit.

“We’re looking at a very balanced approach. The board did request that Mr. Stage and myself go back to the drawing board and try to find ways to trim the deficit. Between now and our final budget, we will be making some adjustments,” Hitchcock said.

Two areas where Hitchcock and Stage will try to avoid when looking at budget cuts are staffing and programs that students in the district count on and enjoy.

“What I would say is we are doing everything we can to maintain programming and staffing. We don’t want to impact student achievement or the programming offered to our students, so we are doing everything we can to maintain the levels we currently have,” Hitchcock said.

Part of that approach could be dipping into the district’s fund balance, but according to Hitchcock, that can’t be the entire solution.

“We do have a healthy fund balance, so we do want to take a very balanced approach. We can’t cover all of it just taking out of our reserves, but (we will look to) take a balanced approach, take some from our reserves and (make) some other strategic decisions,” Hitchcock said.

Pat McDonald can be reached at (570) 888-9643 ext. 228 or Follow Managing Editor Pat McDonald on Twitter @PatMcDonaldMT.

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