"There needs to be a justification for every dime and dollar we spend," Lee County School Board member Tom Scott said.
FORT MYERS — Some Lee County School Board members want a budget built from scratch, not a budget based on a three-year average and inflated wants.
Board member Tom Scott is fed up with the Lee School Board's dependence on dwindling reserves to make ends meet. At Tuesday's School Board budget workshop, Scott will push for zero-based budgeting for the 2013-14 school year.
At least one of his fellow board members, Don Armstrong, fully supports him.
"There needs to be a justification for every dime and dollar we spend," Scott said.
Scott hopes holding employees accountable for each item on the budget will save the district at least $15 million — the same amount the district expects to use of its $48 million in reserves this year. The district's total operating budget is around $760 million.
Currently, the district builds the budget based off of a three-year average of all operating expenses and then makes necessary adjustments to it.
Zero-based budgeting, often used by businesses, forces every department to start building their budget from scratch. Each item on the budget would have to be approved by the board, rather than just the changes or additions made to the budget.
It isn't that simple, according to Lee schools Superintendent Joseph Burke, who said public schools have to factor in state requirements like the class-size amendment.
"That means so many teachers, so many dollars," he said. "It's not the kind of pure, zero-based budgeting that would be desired."
"That means so many teachers, so many dollars," Lee schools Superintendent Joseph Burke said. "It's not the kind of pure, zero-based budgeting that would be desired."
Burke said other challenges, such as collective bargaining agreements and training, make this budgeting concept difficult for school districts to fully implement.
But he's not completely opposed to the idea. He suggested applying a variation of zero-based budgeting that first lays out state requirements and mandates to determine "how much of the budget that chews up." He said the remaining money could be allocated using zero-based budgeting.
Burke projected this could save the district around $10 million for the 2013-14 budget.
Still, he said, the district doesn't have too much loose change.
Armstrong sees plenty of it.
The board member said there's too much "want" in the district that translates into too many employees spending money they don't need to spend — like the $5 million in overtime in the district last year.
"This is not my money. This is the taxpayers' money," Armstrong said. "The constituents are done watching government spend money foolishly."
Although it's too late to do the budgeting exercise for this year's entire budget — the school district's fiscal year begins July 1 — Armstrong wants to try it in one department before the School Board approves the 2012-13 budget in September.
He suggested using the transportation department.
"Tear it down to nothing and build it back up," he said, "I'll show you where we can save money."
Brad Hobbs, a Florida Gulf Coast University economics professor, said zero-based budgeting could be a cost-saving exercise for a public institution like Lee schools.
"At some point you have to realize you're spending more than you're bringing in," he said.
Trying to restructure the system using zero-based budgeting could eliminate long-standing positions within the district and stir up controversy, Hobbs said.
"There are some oxen that are going to be gored," he said.
The School Board and Burke are scheduled to discuss the 2012-13 budget during a board workshop that begins at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday at the district's administrative offices on Colonial Boulevard in Fort Myers.
The superintendent also will present to the board a few million dollars in proposed cuts, including support staff and administrative personnel layoffs, to help balance this year's budget. He said teachers won't be affected by the cuts.
Even with those changes, Burke anticipates the district will have to dip into reserves to make ends meet for the 2012-13 school year.
That's exactly why Scott said he won't back down until the district agrees to zero-based budgeting for the following year.
"Because at some point," Scott said, "You run out."