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Gainesville schools weigh budget cuts; deficit is $6.6 million

Parents don't want moves to hurt children's education

POSTED: June 21, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA /The Times

Board member Sammy Smith addresses the budget during a budget hearing for Gainesville City Schools Tuesday.

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The Gainesville school system has launched into serious number-crunching mode as it moves toward knitting together a final budget for the next fiscal year.

The City Board of Education circulated a two-page preliminary list of recommended budget cuts and revenue-raising ideas at a packed work session Tuesday afternoon.

Board members, meeting at the school system’s central offices, then asked chief financial officer Janet Allison to study the financial impact of their suggestions as she works to prepare a tentative 2008-09 budget, which will take effect July 1.

They also have asked Allison to further study $4.5 million in cuts proposed by Superintendent Steven Ballowe as they work to craft a balanced budget and begin to pare down a deficit now estimated at $6.6 million by the end of this fiscal year, or June 30.

The board plans to vote on the tentative budget Monday, changing the location of the meeting from the central offices on Oak Street to the Gainesville High School cafeteria. The meeting is set to begin at 7 p.m.

Ballowe, who did not attend either of two budget work sessions this week, has been out of the country on a pre-planned vacation. He has recommended that, in addition to the cuts he has proposed, the board raise the tax rate to 8.34 mills from 6.96 mills, or by 20 percent.

"We all completely agree with the success of this administration in the quality of education with Gainesville city schools," said board member Maria Calkins, addressing the audience.

"These talks today are completely separate subjects. I understand they come together, but there is no question about the quality of the education. But now we look at the quality of the finances and the financial management."

The board plans to give its OK to a final budget on June 30, which is when the budget is due to the state.

Allison has said that based on projections, it would take the district at least two years to get back into the black.

Ballowe has said that property tax revenue shortfalls last fiscal year and this fiscal year, as well as some expensive accounting errors, have brought about the deficit.

On Tuesday, the school board heard from several residents on their concerns about next year’s budget.

Faye Bush, executive director of the Newtown Florist Club, pleaded with the board to keep Ballowe as superintendent and presented each board member a letter saying that his dismissal "would be such a terrible waste of money, talent and expertise."

"I know where we’ve come from (academically) and I know where we are today," Bush said.

Gainesville Realtor Jack Waldrip said he appreciated the board "working hard on this budget," but "we do need a change of leadership in the school system."

"We need major cuts, but the business community would like to say (that) people don’t need a big tax increase right now," Waldrip said.

The Rev. Marcus E. Dixon of St. Paul United Methodist Church on Summit Street said he hopes cuts won’t harm instruction.

"I understand we have money to balance out, but keep in mind that children come before money," he said.

Berlinda Lipscomb, secretary of the Gainesville-Hall County NAACP chapter, said the cuts "should not hurt anyone (and) should not have preference to anyone."

Many of the board members’ recommended cuts involve personnel, programs and equipment.

Suggestions include raising the tuition for out-of-district students, evaluating the use of cell phones by administrators, reviewing costs of the new ROTC program at Gainesville High, raising visitor lunch prices to $7.50 from $2.50 and rescinding senior staff pay changes since Jan. 1.

The board focused particularly on one possible change — eliminating the district’s pre-kindergarten program, which is funded by the Georgia Lottery. It was a suggestion that came from the staff, said board member Sammy Smith.

"It’s outside our traditional mission of operating a K-12 system," Smith said. "Secondly, the 10 classrooms (being used for pre-K) spread throughout the system ... could be used for (kindergarten through fifth grade)."

He asked Shirley Whitaker, assistant superintendent, whether the district helps fund the program.

"Not to my knowledge," she said.

"I believe we have in our budget money for pre-K in addition to the state money we receive," Smith said. "I would be gladly corrected."

Willie Mitchell, the board’s June chairman, said he would like school officials also to evaluate whether students have benefited academically in the district after leaving the preschool program.

"In my thinking back when we put this concept together, we ... thought that the earlier we got kids, the more advantage they would have within the system."



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