As the Hall County Board of Education heads toward budget season, discussions have already begun on possible cuts to help balance a shrinking budget.
According to Superintendent Will Schofield, the system will have to seriously consider changes in the way it operates now.
“We have to look at creating a more efficient model of schooling, but in the short term there’s not much that’s not on the table,” he said.
Discussions have started on setting priorities for field trips, cutting out-of-state professional travel, slashing fleet vehicle use in half, using furlough days, streamlining athletic and extracurricular travel and possibly not filling vacant positions.
“We’ve got a number of vacancies throughout the system right now and we can, in tough times, choose not to fill all or a percentage of vacancies,” said Schofield. “Of course, that translates into class sizes getting a little larger.”
School officials are anticipating low state and local funding, which make up about 90 percent of their total budget.
Four years ago, the system’s operating budget was about $217 million. This year it is $184 million and could be less next year. But to get through this year, the system relied on reserve funding to help alleviate some costs.
Schofield says that will have to be done this year, but is not the answer long term, and he said he would like to see some money in that reserve fund at the end of the year. If the system drained its reserve fund, which will be around $7 million at the beginning of fiscal year 2012, it could operate close to normal.
“We could stick our head in the sand and clip along as business as usual,” said Schofield. “I just don’t think that’s fiscally responsible. I don’t see anything that leads me to believe that we’re moving towards rosy days of financing public education.”
He says the system needs to find ways to counter the shrinking funding, not just weather the storm.
“We certainly are nowhere close to being a deficit-spending district, nor will we be,” said Schofield. “But as we look at the tea leaves, we’re going to have to change the way schools function.”
Options, he said, are leveraging technology to work within the system’s monetary constraints, while moving toward a blended-learning environment, where students can take some classes remotely, among other advantages.
Those options, Schofield said, are “radically different than the schools of the past,” but must be on the table for the near future. But the system’s budget challenges, the superintendent says, do not come from wasteful spending.
He says the system’s audit placed it as the 29th-lowest per-pupil-expenditure district in the state.
“There’s not much waste going on in the Hall County school district,” said Schofield. “We’re doing this pretty darn efficiently and I’d like to believe as a parent that I’m getting an awful lot of value in terms of the opportunities my children have.”
Lee Johnson covers education issues for The Times. Share your thoughts, news tips and questions with him: