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Gainesville school board faces June 30 budget deadline

Decision on raising taxes to overcome deficit is due by month’s end

POSTED: June 12, 2008 5:00 a.m.

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In wrestling with a deficit up to $7 million, the Gainesville school board may use up every available hour in approving a 2008-09 budget by the state's June 30 deadline. That budget may include raising property taxes up to 20 percent.

Once that's done, board members are hinting they'll face a decision on the future of Superintendent Steven Ballowe.

"The process will not be hurried," said Sammy Smith, the City Board of Education's chairman for May.
David Syfan, fellow board member, agreed. "I think (the budget process) will take every day in June."

The board had planned to approve a tentative budget Monday at its regularly scheduled work session, then adopt a final budget at its monthly business meeting on June 16.

But those dates went out the window last week when board members held two public hearings and met with staff at another time to gather comments and suggestions on the system's finances.

"We feel like we are armed with more data and more citizens comments and staff comments," Smith said. "That can't help but give us more confidence and momentum toward (the state deadline) of creating a workable budget."

Board member Willie Mitchell, who will serve as the June chairman, anticipates a process that likely will include more than just the scheduled meetings.

"I think the board is willing to commit to whatever time it takes, and the staff is willing," he said. "Yeah, it's going to take a lot more than just two or three meetings to get there."

Board members Maria Calkins and Kelvin Simmons couldn't be reached for comment by phone or e-mail Friday.

Janet Allison, the school system's financial chief, has said the district could end this fiscal year, which ends June 30, with a revenue shortfall between $6.5 million and $7 million.

Ballowe has said the system's financial woes can be traced to March 2007, when the city government notified the system that property tax collections were $3 million less than projected for the 2006-07 budget year.

He said word never reached his office or the school board and that the shortfall began to snowball when the board, not knowing about the $3 million deficit, approved this year's budget based on the same kind of revenue projections.

Worsening the damage was the discovery of accounting errors, particularly the discovery that money intended for the building fund and federal programs were wrongfully in the general fund and had to be moved - another $1 million hit to the system's finances.

To repair the damage, Ballowe is proposing to raise the tax rate to 8.34 mills from 6.96, a 20 percent increase, 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.

City residents angrily criticized school board members and administration at the two hearings and called for an independent audit as soon as possible, with some seeking Ballowe's firing.

Board members agreed that an audit needed to take place, especially after the most recent audit, a state examination of the 2005-06 budget, showed a slight budget increase. An audit of the 2006-07 budget is under way.

Board members didn't comment at the hearings on Ballowe's future.

"My concern is focused on the budget and the systemic problems with the budget," Smith said Friday. "Some of those are procedures, some are policies (and) some are personnel. We must look at all categories."

Syfan said that while the school board has community oversight of the district, "at the end of the day, the superintendent is responsible for the school system."

"That means that when things go good, he gets credit for that. But when things go bad, he also gets credit for that.

"A lot of people made comments (at the hearings) that if you were the CEO of a private business and you let that private business go $7 million into debt, you would not be the CEO any longer."

The school board evaluates Ballowe in many areas, including his fiscal management. "I think it's a legitimate question as to whether he's been a good public steward of the tax funds of the system," Syfan said. "It's not an individual decision. It's a decision by the board based on the facts before us."
Ballowe, who sat silently at both public hearings, was not oblivious to being on the hot seat.

He said after Thursday night's hearing, in praising Allison for her work since she arrived in August, that he believed "whether I'm here or not, she'll be part of a great solution for the future."

Syfan said the board is scheduled to evaluate Ballowe's performance soon. "It's going to be an item for discussion in June," he added.

"Of course, you put out one fire at a time, and right now the budget crisis is dominating. I think we all feel we've got to get a handle on and resolve the budget crisis."

Mitchell said he believes a tax increase is inevitable but maybe not as much -- and maybe half as much -- as Ballowe has proposed. He also believes cuts can be made in every area of school operations.

"One of the things we've got to ensure is that our delivery of instruction to the kids can't be compromised in (any) shape, form or fashion," Mitchell said.



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