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Schools cut budgets amid dark economic times

POSTED: October 25, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Hall County educators are slashing the school system’s budget now to be "better safe than sorry" as the state and national budget pictures continue to darken.

Will Schofield, Hall County schools superintendent, said the school system has enacted an immediate 10 percent cut to all items other than personnel.

The cuts will affect roughly 12 percent of the school system’s $218 million budget. Schofield said the cuts will save the system nearly $2.7 million this fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2009. Funds likely will be pulled from landscaping, school repairs, maintaining heating and air parts, fuel, furnishing and wiring, he said.

Schofield said he and the Hall County school board are organizing an ad hoc committee to look at budget possibilities for fiscal year 2010. The committee will be comprised of two representatives from the teacher of the year group as well as two community business leaders.

"We decided it was time to kick in some expenditure controls across the board right now," Schofield said. "We were hoping we could put that off until next budget year, but it’s time now."

State leaders also are bracing for an economic blow to education.

After mandating a 2 percent cut in state funding for school districts this summer, Gov. Sonny Perdue recently informed school system superintendents he intends to introduce legislation to the General Assembly in January that would allow school systems more flexibility in the use of state funds. State funds currently are distributed to school
districts under the condition they only be spent in specific facets of the school system. The 2 percent state cuts amount to more than $2 million in the Hall County school system and to roughly $600,000 in the Gainesville system.

Perdue’s proposed legislation requests the state Board of Education to grant all "reasonable" class size waiver requests for the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years. Perdue also said his proposed legislative package would temporarily relax the expenditure controls in site-based direct instruction, libraries and staff development.

Lee Lovett, an accountant for Hall County schools, said he’s glad to see that Perdue recognizes schools are in a real economic crunch.

"This flexibility would take me off the hook," Lovett said.

He said Perdue’s proposed legislation would allow schools to use some state funds in areas where they are needed most rather than using them only in the areas for which they were initially earmarked.

Merrianne Dyer, interim superintendent of Gainesville schools, said Perdue’s proposed waivers and flexibility would have little economic impact on the city school system. As a charter school system, Gainesville schools already are exempt from many state requirements, such as mandated class sizes, Dyer said.

"We’ve got a tight budget, and we’re sticking to our plan," she said.

In addition to Hall County schools’ 10 percent cut, one-fourth of the system’s travel budget has been cut. Schofield said he canceled his trip to the annual superintendent’s conference in accordance with the new policy.

Salaries compose 88 percent of the Hall County school system’s current budget. Schofield said no salaries have been cut at this point, but if the system’s budget is $10 million less next fiscal year than this fiscal year, personnel cuts will have to be made. Schofield already has declined his $9,000 bonus this year.

The Hall County and Gainesville school systems currently are maintaining a hiring freeze. Schofield said as employees leave the school system for health-related or personal reasons, their jobs are not being refilled.

"Quite honestly, we probably won’t be able to find 10 percent in cuts, but we’re continuing to consolidate positions every day. And rarely a week goes by that we don’t eliminate a position within the system," he said. "... We’re just consolidating and doing without."



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