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Our Views: Back in the black

Gainesville schools prove how strong leadership can overcome budget woes

POSTED: July 31, 2011 1:00 a.m.

Three years ago this summer, Gainesville's school system was in a state of chaos.

The controversy that dogged the district all summer revolved around a $6.5 million budget deficit that seemingly showed up overnight, though it was actually many months in the making. It only came to light when school officials sought a property tax hike of some 14.4 percent to plug the gap.

Though the worldwide economic recession was still several months in the future, city taxpayers were none too pleased. The more it was learned about the system's financial mismanagement, the angrier folks got. The budget issue ultimately cost superintendent Steven Ballowe his job.

Fast forward to this summer, when Gainesville schools were able to finally retire that deficit and report a balanced budget, welcome news after the turmoil of 2008.

The path from that fountain of red ink to the current fiscal stability is no small feat and worth celebrating, especially now that government agencies at every level are struggling to balance their books between spending cuts and diminishing revenues.

Much of the credit goes to the stewardship of Superintendent Merrianne Dyer, who was chosen to succeed Ballowe before the turbulent 2008 school year. A longtime principal in the system, she brought a calm demeanor and a businesslike approach to a system that needed a steadier hand at the financial wheel.

Ballowe was admittedly too removed from the system's money issues, choosing instead to delegate those decisions to his financial staff. But Dyer became personally involved with the task of helping the system climb out of the hole. She personally approved key expenses, saying that "every day for the last three years, I spent the end of the day on software approving purchases. You're just much more careful about the money that way."

Early in her tenure, an audit of the system's finances found that the deficit wasn't as large as first feared. Much of it was just the result of sloppy bookkeeping. After the deficit was knocked down to $5.6 million, it was found that a city tax bill error further reduced it even further.

Yet Dyer was left to make tough decisions on where to spend money, all while trimming jobs and staff salaries during an economic recession that cut into both local and state revenue contributions to school districts.

In spite of that challenge, Dyer never lost sight of the big picture. Her leadership guided the school system through the deficit and the economic storm that followed. And all the while, she was able to maintain Gainesville schools' academic success from the foundation that Ballowe had laid.

The result are schools Gainesville can be proud of. As a new school year is set to begin in a couple of weeks, the sun is shining again on the city system and the future looks ever brighter. City students will head back to class knowing that a new Fair Street school soon will be built to replace the aging, but beloved, 75-year old edifice now being razed.

Plans are set to move the system forward, and as the economy improves, should bring in the needed revenue for more improvements down the road.

The example set by Dyer and the Board of Education is one that other governments would do well to follow. Our representatives in Washington continue to spar over how to slice into a federal budget deficit of trillions that boggles the imagination. And just this summer, Hall County's government had to manage a rising budget gap of its down by making austere cuts to staff and services.

There are no easy answers when governments face the prospect of trying to maintain a minimum level of public needs while less tax money is flowing in. It is an unenviable task.

But the first step toward earning the trust of the people served, as well as the government employees affected, is a simple one: Care about the people's money. Treat every tax dollar with respect. Don't act as if you are spending money that comes from an unlimited supply, where all you need do is ask for more. Treat the public's budget as you would your own; make tough but wise decisions on how to spend it and don't waste any of it needlessly.

Ballowe, despite of his brilliance as an academic innovator, failed to do this. As a result, Dyer made the system's fiscal problems a top priority and worked to make the right decisions at every step, knowing that academic success could only be achieved once the budgetary problems were cleared up.

Local schools still face challenges in the classroom. Gainesville had only half of its schools make Adequate Yearly Progress in the latest No Child Left Behind evaluation, a bar that continues to rise for all schools. In an age when global competition has upped the ante, all schools need to strive to do more with the resources they have.

But at least Gainesville taxpayers will know that the money they pay to educate local students now is being spent wisely and responsibly. For that, Dyer, her staff, her principals and the district's educators deserve our thanks and support.



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