Drop in court revenue leaves schools in lurch

State, local cuts not the only losses for education
Jul. 30, 2013 @ 05:01 AM

With the state mandating Lee County Schools cut out millions of dollars in salaries and other classroom payments, the district has to implement those cuts or try to offset them with other sources.

Many of those other sources, however, are also declining.

Much of the money schools receive is meant for a specific purpose. But some funds are for general or semi-restricted uses, like the money that state law says schools must receive from court fines and bond forfeitures.

But in less than a decade, Lee County Schools have lost about half a million dollars from the courts, with revenues dropping from $640,200 in the 2004 fiscal year to $155,524 in the 2013 fiscal year, which ended June 30.

That 76 percent decline has hurt the school district’s budgetary flexibility, said Tammy Magill, assistant superintendent for financial and business services. She said the funds her office receives from the courts aren’t earmarked for anything specific, so it could be used to plug holes in whichever areas funding fell short.

Magill said these funds typically go toward staff development, salaries, supplies, utilities and other assorted needs. And as those receipts have gotten smaller, she said, the stresses of cuts from other sources have become more pronounced.

“We’ve had to change the way we fund some of those things,” she said, although she couldn’t point to any specific cuts due to the losses, citing the generic nature of the funds.

This spring, when the Lee County Commissioners were considering how much to fund public education for this coming year, the schools requested about $3 million extra — which the commissioners didn’t grant, also cutting $500,000 that had been used to pay teaching assistants. One of the things then-Superintendent Jeff Moss cited as a need for the extra funds at the time was the gradual loss of court fines and bond forfeitures.

School leaders have sued over the issue before, including about a decade ago when several school boards joined together to sue dozens of state officials for withholding funds. The schools won, and the defendants were ordered to pay nearly $750 million. But Jimmy Love Sr., attorney for the Lee County Board of Education, said he thinks Lee County’s decline in court funds isn’t due to anything subversive like in that case from the early 2000s. Love, who is also a former district attorney and thus has experience on both sides of the issue, said the decline is largely because judges simply aren’t levying that many fines anymore.

Court costs — which schools are not entitled to — have risen steadily in recent years, and as they have done so, Love said, judges have become more lenient with fines. Costs for infractions or misdemeanors have doubled since 2001, rising from $90 to $178 or $180, respectively.

“When it doubles, [judges] don’t put any fine on [defendants],” he said. “... They say that the court cost, that $178, punishes them enough.”

The other part of the equation is bond forfeiture, which occurs when someone is accused of a crime and posts bail but then doesn’t show up for the court date. Love said forfeitures have, in recent years, been harder and harder to claim. That difficulty, he said, is due to a state law passed several years ago that expanded the exemptions for bail bondsmen and their clients to claim.

One record Love provided showed a $1,000 bond the schools received when a man, facing charges of speeding and driving while license revoked, missed his court date. But the bond was returned five months later because his attorney wrote that the man claimed he was overseas at the time, working as a defense contractor. Love said he challenged the validity of that excuse, but to no avail.

“There’s no reason for them, the bondsmen, to ever lose a dime,” Love said. “And [the General Assembly] wrote it for them, so that’s just the way it is. ... I could appeal, but it costs $2,000 to appeal a case. So it’s just not practical.”

Looking at the decline of court fines and forfeitures, Magill said the schools will just have to hope for more financing in the future from other sources because the courts don’t seem to be on course to reverse the trend anytime soon.

“I don’t see anything on that chart to make me expect that,” she said.