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State budget cuts trickle down to local schools

POSTED: August 19, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

Students line up to get on their respective buses at the end of the day at Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy Thursday. With state budget cuts in effect, local schools are being asked to cut 2 percent from services such as transportation.

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The state’s projected budget shortfall of $1.6 billion this year is forcing Gov. Sonny Perdue to order cuts in education funding that will affect kindergarten through 12th-grade districts, technical colleges and four-year universities.

Perdue has ordered cuts of 6 percent for nearly all state agencies except for the Department of Education, which likely will be cut 2 percent. While most state employee pay raises planned for January are being deferred to absorb the shortfall, teachers’ planned 2.5 percent raises are still intact, according to Dana Tofig, communications director for the state Department of Education.

Tofig said that to reduce the $8.2 billion the state allotted for education this fiscal year, which began July 1, the state will provide 2 percent less funding than promised to local K-12 districts. The state is set to provide 6 percent less funding than promised to technical colleges and four-year universities.

"We know this is really hitting local districts," Tofig said.

In an e-mail sent to district superintendents Monday, a finance director with the state Department of Education informed superintendents that programs to receive cuts include the preschool handicapped, student transportation, per pupil supplements, school nurses and tuition for the multihandicapped.

Will Schofield, superintendent of Hall County schools, said the state has reduced its funding for student transportation to $2.3 million, which does not cover the $2.4 million the district has budgeted for diesel fuel alone.

Jackson County Superintendent Shannon Adams said with increases in gas prices and student populations, Jackson County will have a difficult time dealing with transportation cuts.

"We’re having a lot of phone calls about getting students home a little earlier. But it’s not going to make it easier to get those kids home a little sooner with fewer buses on the roads, fewer drivers, more stops to make and the cost of fuel going up," he said.

Adams also said Jackson County isn’t alone in its struggles to deal with cuts coming at the state level.

"There’s pretty widespread agreement among the superintendents throughout the state that this is the worst it’s been in recent memory," he said.

Similarly, Barrow County schools will be looking at its funding priorities to see where cuts can and cannot be made, according to Ken Cato, assistant superintendent for business services.

At the present time, the Barrow school system doesn’t plan to reduce personnel but will consider freezing any additional hires and reducing the number of field trips to lower fuel usage, he said.

Schofield said the key is cutting costs without having to cut essential services for students.

He said one avenue the Hall County school district might explore is increasing class sizes, since 85 to 90 percent of the district’s budget goes to salaries. He said the district has already enacted a hiring freeze save for state-mandated positions.

Schofield said he is grateful for the Hall County Board of Education’s conservative spending. The superintendent said the district will have roughly $8 million in its reserve fund at the end of the 2008-2009 school year.

But with the state calling for 3 percent in cuts for fiscal year 2010, Schofield said that reserve fund may go quickly.

"2010 is going to be the interesting year," he said.

Like Schofield, Merrianne Dyer, interim superintendent of Gainesville city schools, said she is most concerned about the reduction in quality basic education grants for each student. State quality basic education grants were set to provide districts with about $2,000 for each average high school student, and up to $8,000 for the most severely handicapped high school student.

As for Gainesville city school district’s financial situation, state cuts are not helping the district bail itself out of an estimated $5.6 million deficit.

"It means it will take us longer to reduce our deficit than we originally planned," Dyer said.

She said the Gainesville City Board of Education initially planned to pay off the deficit within two years, but now it likely will take three.

While K-12 education is absorbing 2 percent cuts, technical and four-year institutions are being forced to absorb 6 percent cuts.

David Potter, president of North Georgia College & State University, said the $1.7 million cut from the school’s budget is slowing its momentum to expand its curriculum.

Local four-year institutions are seeing enrollment increases, and local technical schools are seeing demand surge for two-year degrees that allow students to get into the work force faster.

Mike Light, spokesman for the Technical College System of Georgia, said Georgia is seeing a "renaissance in technical colleges."

Light said more people are enrolling at technical colleges while the state is slashing funding for the colleges. He said the state is cutting a total of $22.25 million from technical colleges statewide.

With about 6,000 students, Light said Lanier Technical College is one of the state’s largest technical schools.

Mike Moye, president of Lanier Technical College, said the school will be forced to cut full-time staff positions and funds for the technology, which plays a crucial role in the education of technical students.

Light said roughly 40 percent of technical students are seeking health care-related degrees.

Moye said the school has gotten creative to deal with the state cuts.

"We are moving to a four day workweek, which will enable us to cut out most utility costs for 20 percent of the time we are normally operational," he wrote in an e-mail.

If the budget cut hits the 10 percent level during fiscal year 2010 we see the probability of losing staff members and programs."

Schofield said educators simply will have to get even more creative with the funds generated from local, state and federal sources.

"More money doesn’t necessarily mean better education," he said. "I’m not a pessimist about this."

Times regional staff writer Claire Miller contributed to this report.



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