By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Budget is trump issue in Hall schools race
Richard Higgins
Richard Higgins

Hall County Board of Education candidates
(Winner is unopposed on November ballot)

Richard Higgins
Age: 58
Party: Republican
Residence: Gainesville
Political experience: 12 years on the school board, 11 years as chairman
Background: Higgins is owner of Carrier Services of Georgia, a trucking logistics company. He is married to Hall County teacher Connie and has three children.

How he'd address the budget issues, if elected:
Hall County anticipated the necessity of making budget adjustments a few years prior. As a result, we have been able to keep our school system in the black. Last year, we were able to complete the year with over $9 million in surplus. The surplus will be pushed into this year’s budget and will significantly help soften the blow from anticipated state cuts. Over 88 percent of the school system budget is tied to salaries. The only way to absorb major revenue cuts would be to make cuts in personnel. It is the board’s sincere desire to lay off as few teachers and other personnel as possible. Our employees have taken the brunt of the economic downturn with salary reductions and furlough days. We will continue to look for ways to efficiently run our school system. Employee layoffs are the last measure that will be taken.

Bill Thompson
Age: 60
Party: Republican
Residence: Oakwood
Political experience: This is Thompson’s first run for the school board.
Background: Thompson recently retired after 32 years with Hall County Schools. He was principal of Jones Elementary for six years and Chestatee High School for more than five years. He is married to wife Linda and has five children.

How he’d address the budget issues, if elected:
The No. 1 priority in budget cuts is to protect the learning process for the students. That can be in many areas: class size, classes offered, number of credits needed to graduate and having dedicated teachers who have the students’ best interests at heart. While we have had a couple of years of “gut-wrenching” decisions to make, the hardest times may still be ahead of us. Reports that keep coming up are that while school year 2010-2011 is extremely difficult with the budget, school year 2011-2012 may be the most difficult of all. I feel layoffs should be a last resort and furloughs are more effective.

Schools are sick of budget cuts.

Hit at federal, state and local funding levels, school districts are constantly adjusting their current budget, not to mention future budgets.

With taxes still down in Georgia and stimulus funding for education drying up this year, the outlook for the next year or two is only worse. Teachers are patiently waiting out the financial drought, and school board members are trying to guess what’s next.

“Whether or not the economy picks up, it’s a variable, and we need to be committed to serving the boys and girls,” Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said. “Leaders cannot be the defenders of the status quo. We’re constantly asking how we can do it better and differently.”

For the 2010-2011 school year, Hall County Schools closed Jones Elementary School and announced eight furlough days to combat the budget crisis. School districts across the state have cut extracurricular programs and athletics, and some have shortened the calendar to a four-day school week.

“How can you be creative and smart through this crisis and not hurt instructional delivery?” said Steve Dolinger, director of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a nonpartisan group that helps educators across Georgia understand the challenges ahead. “About 90 percent of budgets are salaries and benefits. There are no quick fixes.”

With tougher times ahead, layoffs seem “inevitable,” he said. As school boards change the budget, community members will crave transparency.

“On the operations side of the house, school boards should make sure they have solid business processes in place to save money where they can — transportation, food services and warehousing — and put it into the classroom,” Dolinger said. “Cut where you can to defend against the criticism that a bureaucracy is in place.”

Georgia will spend about $10.3 billion on education in fiscal year 2011, reaching from preschool to college systems, which accounts for more than half of the state’s budget. At the local level, state funds pay for 45 percent of the total, local funds pay for 47 percent and federal funds support 8 percent of the budget, according to Georgia Department of Education statistics.

More cuts — including a recent cut in June — took stimulus funds from schools to balance the state fiscal 2010 budget. For Hall County Schools, this means $250,000 less for this fall already. Local superintendents may see another 3 to 5 percent cut during the school year. Between fiscal years 2003 to 2011, the state has cut about $4.3 billion from education, according to the Georgia School Superintendents Association.

Brad Bryant, state schools superintendent inducted July 1, told local superintendents during a conference call that he wants them to work with the state superintendents association to answer the challenges ahead. The association recently teamed up with the Georgia School Boards Association in a project called “A Vision for Public Education in Georgia,” which also will address budget problems.

For now, local school board members are waiting to see what happens with tax revenues, and teachers are holding on for another year.

“Teachers get it. You look into their eyes, and you don’t see anger or bitterness. They’re tired and frustrated, and they continue to do more with less,” Schofield said in early June. “Every time I’m in a school, which is every day, I ask how they’re doing, and they say they’re OK but tired. It’s frustrating to not be able to do anything but put an arm around them.”