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Gainesville school board keeps superintendent memo secret

System already under fire for budget shortfall, planned tax increase

POSTED: June 14, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS /The Times

Gainesville city school board members Willie Mitchell, right, and Kelvin Simmons take a look at the school's finance report during Monday afternoon's meeting at the central office on Oak Street.

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Already mired in a controversy about a $7 million budget shortfall, Gainesville school board members caught more public heat Monday night when they refused to disclose a May 19 memo from Superintendent Steven Ballowe.

UPDATE: Ballowe says board may have violated his civil rights

During the regularly scheduled work session, board members passed the memo among themselves talking in hushed tones, then voted to refer the letter to legal counsel.

The actions prompted an immediate response from some audience members.

"Have we not had enough secrets?" said Renee Gerrell, a local resident. "I don’t understand why we can’t know what it is (in the memo)."

Another area resident, Floyd Baldwin, chimed in, "I don’t understand why you’re mumbling amongst each other up there."

Board members Kelvin Simmons, Sammy Smith, David Syfan and Willie Mitchell said they believed the document needed legal review before its release.

"We want to be sure before we put something out from a legal standpoint for the protection of us," Simmons said.

"I’m not (board attorney) Phil (Hartley), and I’m sure Phil will take a position on it," Syfan said.

"I have no problem, as long as counsel says it’s OK to release the document," Mitchell said.

Board member Maria Calkins did not attend the meeting and could not be reached later.

Gerrell said she had a "huge problem" with the lack of disclosure, especially as the document "is on school stationery or addressed to the school board ... and we have at least one person who agrees it should be public record."

Syfan said that residents, if they chose, could file a request for the document under the Georgia Open Records Act, which gives governments three business days to furnish the records.

Hartley was not at the meeting.

Contacted afterward, he didn’t take a position on whether the board should have provided immediate disclosure, but he said he would contact school officials this morning about the matter.

Gerrell was still fuming about the issue after the meeting.

"The public is so suspicious about everything right now," she said. "The system has a $7 million budget deficit in 10 months’ time, and the board has no inclination of that? It doesn’t at all add up."

The district’s financial chief, Janet Allison, spoke at the board’s May 19 meeting that the system faced a shortfall in revenues of $6.5 million to $7 million by the end of the fiscal year, June 30.

At that time, Ballowe recommended raising the property tax rate to 8.34 mills from 6.96, or by nearly 20 percent, to help balance the 2008-09 budget, which takes effect July 1.

The public blasted Ballowe and the school board in two public hearings last week, with some calling for Ballowe’s firing.

The board had limited discussion on the budget at Monday night’s meeting.

The board said it would discuss the budget further at noon on Monday and June 10.

The school system has until June 30 to submit next year’s budget to the state Department of Education.

Board members also discussed having one more public hearing between the tentative and final adoption of the budget.

"Let’s go to work, look at the numbers and crunch the numbers and look at the cuts and get the job done," Simmons said.

"... I would like for this community to give this board the opportunity and time to go to work and resolve the issue," he added. "We could continue to hear the same thing over and over — that’s not going to resolve the issue."

But one resident, Esther Butler, didn’t exactly heed those words.

"There is no excuse for this budget to be in the shape that it’s in," said Butler, a retired employee for the system, shortly after Simmons’ comment. "... You really need to make the cuts where it will not hurt the schools."



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