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Residents clamor for change in city school leadership

City school chiefs discuss budget cuts, tax increase

POSTED: June 10, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Tom Reed/The Times

Jeff Stowe makes a point during the Gainesville School Board budget hearing Thursday evening.

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About 100 people complained loudly Thursday night about the Gainesville school system’s financial woes, with many saying they believed Steven Ballowe should go as superintendent.

"This man runs a bank," said area resident Bill Morrison, standing next to and pointing at Dick Valentine, chief executive officer of United Community Bank. "But if he goes $7 million in the hole, he’s fired."

Heated comments filled the second of two scheduled public hearings on the system’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2008-09, which takes effect July 1.

School officials have said the district could end this fiscal year, which ends June 30, with a revenue shortfall of between $6.5 million and $7 million.

To make up the difference, Ballowe is proposing raising the tax rate to 8.34 mills from 6.96, with 1 mill equal to $1 for each $1,000 in property tax values. Also, schools are proposing to cut spending by $4.5 million.

"Our plan is to cut as much as we can," said David Syfan, a board member. "I don’t want to cut things that will affect student achievement or put unreasonable expectations or load on our teachers."

Janet Allison, the city system’s finance director, has said both courses of action could, depending on the economy and other factors, put the district in the black within two years.

But those details, or explaining how school officials said the deficit occurred, didn’t please a vocally angry group meeting in Gainesville High School’s media center.

"I’m mad," said one audience member, James Allen. "I’d rather you just try to sneak into my house later tonight and take the money."

After a few moments of laughter and applause, he added, "I’m not all about the love. I’m not here to make you like me. I’m mad."

Jeff Stowe said he believes that "one of the issues people are having is our trust with our administrators at the central office."

He said that about three weeks ago he sat in a meeting where school officials backed up a $350,000 pledge to renovate the fieldhouse at Bobby Gruhn Stadium.

"Less than three weeks ago, I was told that. I’m reading tonight that that’s proposed to be cut. We’re spending money to get plans drawn and to move forward on that project because we were told by the superintendent’s office that that money would be there.

"So we are wasting, wasting, wasting money left and right cause the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing," Stowe said to board members. "And those people need to be accountable or you are going to accountable."

Another resident, Floyd Baldwin, said he worries about the economic effects of a tax increase.

"I don’t know how we’re going to recruit industry to this community," he said. "... I have a proposal: Eliminate all (school) administration."

Throughout the hour-plus hearing, Ballowe stood silently at the back of the room.

Afterward, he said he believes "everything has to come back to the superintendent, but there is the factor that you have to trust people, and we did not have accurate data."

Ballowe added that he understands "the pain when it comes to paying taxes."

"I think it’s very clear that Gainesville’s investment is a wonderful investment. Our results speak for themselves, and ... when you compare what Gainesville pays compared to other communities, I don’t apologize for that. As far as having a shortfall, yes, it’s extremely disturbing."

He went on to praise Allison for her work in the system since she arrived in August to help correct the financial picture.

"So, whether I’m here or not, she’ll be part of a great solution for the future."

The board was scheduled to approve a tentative budget Monday and a final budget June 16, but Ballowe said he sees those actions taking place later.

The system has until June 30 to submit a final budget, along with a plan of how to get out of the red, to the state, said the board’s May chairman, Sammy Smith.

The budget still will come up as an issue at Monday’s meeting.

Smith said he plans to present a list of budget cuts he is working on to the board then.

"I hope all of my colleagues take the same initiative," he added.



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