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Gainesville school system bracing for more cuts
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Leaders of the Gainesville school system are taking an even closer look at the system’s budget draft following a visit from state Superintendent of Schools Kathy Cox who advised them to be prepared for further state cuts and possible furloughs which could prolong the system’s time in the red.

Gainesville schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said Cox attended a Gainesville charter system leadership team meeting Monday night and warned educators and parents even deeper state budget cuts likely are on the horizon.

While spokesmen for the governor’s office and the state Department of Education could not confirm whether the governor is planning a special legislative session later this summer to cut more from the roughly $18 billion state budget, Dyer said she’s taking cues from Cox.

Dyer said she believes the system will not be able to reduce its estimated $5.6 million deficit by June 30, 2011 as the school board had planned.

"We may have to extend it three more years, possibly four," she said of the deficit reduction plan. "That’s just being realistic, not even safe. ... We’ll be monitored by the state but there’s no down side to that we see."

By the end of the month, the Gainesville board will reduce its deficit by $1.8 million. The initial three-year deficit reduction plan called for the board to reduce the deficit by $2 million in fiscal year 2010, which begins July 1, and to reduce it by another $1.8 million in fiscal year 2011.

State Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, said because state revenues are down 20 percent compared to last year, it may be a good move for the school system to extend its deficit reduction plan.

"The delay, putting it off, would certainly help taxpayers," Rogers said. "I’d rather see them do that than raise the millage rate like they did last year."

Rogers said he feels legislators will have to make more cuts as long as sales and tax revenues are down. Although he said legislators are doing what they can to prop up education, it will be difficult to cut more from the state’s roughly $8 billion education budget without implementing furloughs.

The renewed threat of furloughs also may affect how the Gainesville system approaches a proposed system wide pay cut for its 1,400 employees, Dyer said.

"We are definitely considering that possibility and are being as conservative as possible with our local supplement," Dyer said of the furloughs and proposed pay cuts. "We’re trying to cut it (salaries) as little as possible because it’s likely our employees may have to pay more for insurance and they may be furloughed."

She said potential furloughs would affect employees’ salaries more than the quality of students’ education because teachers would be furloughed on planning days when students are absent.

Dyer said also Cox told Gainesville school leaders Monday that due to economic constraints, it would be "acceptable" for the system to defer payments on a $2 million bond taken out in 1993. The school board could delay payments on the bond until at least 2011, said Gainesville schools Chief Financial Officer Janet Allison, but the board would have to pay about $100,000 annual interest on the bond.

Bert Brantley, communications director for the governor’s office, said it remains unclear whether school systems will be required this year to absorb a cut greater than 3 percent — which was the amount the state cut from schools this past year.

"Who knows what percentage of cuts we’ll have to make if the economy doesn’t turn around," he said.

"I do think we better be planning with our eyes wide open," said Hall County schools Superintendent Will Schofield.

Brantley said if needed, the state has $1.2 billion of federal stimulus funding marked for k-12 and higher education in fiscal years 2010 and 2011.