Budget blunder leaves a black hole in the books

4th August 2000 at 01:00
FIFE schools have been assured their budgets will not be raided to compensate for a surprise pound;1.8 million deficit in education spending last year.

The embarrassing shortfall was dismissed by senior Labour councillors and education officials as a financial aberration that is unlikely to recur at a special meeting of the council's education committee on Tuesday. One-off circumstances in late spring were mostly to blame, it is claimed.

The authority admits mistakes were made and has promised improved monthly performance monitoring and better communication between different council departments such as transport and property.

Helen Law, Fife's education convener, said that the funding gap was substantial but was still only 1 per cent of the pound;164 million education budget. Councillors will decide later this month how to plug the shortfall but have frozen key aspects of the central education budget. The budget in 1998-99 was out by only pound;131,000 and there was a pound;200,000 underspend the year before.

Mrs Law told the committee: "Some things could not have been prevented but at least we should have known about them. It's not an exact science and there are always many unforseen issues that come up. We are trying to get to the bottom of this and make sure it does not happen again."

In an 18-page report, Alex McKay, head of education, explained that overspends ranged across a number of different areas. School transport was almost pound;670,000 over budget, special education pound;526,000 over, staffing (argely supply cover) pound;340,000 over, while energy costs and CCTV lighting for school security were pound;100,000 over.

Mr McKay expressed "regret" that a number of areas were not reported earlier to the committee but insisted that many services were demand-led. Additional costs could not have been prevented. "What happened after March this year was exceptional. We now know which parts are a new trend and which are a blip."

He explained later: "There have been a lot of additional resources for education but they are targeted at specific priorities, shared by the council and the overwhelming majority of staff. But when put against the position of local authorities, core budgets come under increasing pressures."

Elizabeth Riches, Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman, said extra transport costs should not have surprised the council since contracts were agreed on a three-year rolling programme.

"Small extra contracts were often needed for particular schools; an increase in fares was simply not budgeted for; rebates were expected to cease; and nursery transport was overspent because the budget made no allowance for transporting three-year-olds," Mrs Riches said. "Basically all of these factors should have been known about but there was inadequate communication and, as a result, poor budgeting."

For the SNP, Jim Cook said he was not bothered about an overspend but an "unnecessary overspend", while Michael Woods said the money could have been spent on grass cutting and home helps.

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