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Gainesville schools: Ballowe doesnt have the answers
Superintendent defers to district finance officer on money matters
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Superintendent Steven Ballowe, right, talks about finances for this budget year.
Gainesville schools Superintendent Steven Ballowe was unable to provide definitive answers Wednesday for why the district has amassed a $6.6 million deficit over two years or why this year’s budget has huge spending increases in several areas.

Instead, Ballowe pushed off specific questions about the district’s spending to chief financial officer Janet Allison.

"I’m not the accountant," Ballowe said.

During a 45-minute exclusive interview with The Times, Ballowe also addressed a rift that has developed between him and the five-member school board, accusing members of going behind his back to get information from system employees.

Ballowe was questioned extensively about increases in spending during the current year. Documents provided by the system Tuesday show the district spent $3.4 million more than it budgeted for the fiscal year, which ends June 30.

But he had few answers.

"I’m very simple when it comes to finance," said Ballowe, who is pushing a 20-percent increase in the tax rate to cover the deficit. "If you have the money and you’re paying your bills, I always felt good."

Asked to explain why expenses have jumped to $34.6 million from $30.9 million in instruction, which comprises mainly teacher salaries and benefits, he said, "We have to look and see exactly what that is for. I couldn’t (pin that down) today."

Ballowe did say that the system made a big push at the beginning of the school year to put a ninth-grade academy at Gainesville High School and to make the middle school and high school academies function separately.

"We did utilize quite a bit of additional staff, but again you do that thinking the money is in the budget and the revenues balance the expenditures."

Ballowe said he didn’t have a copy of this year’s budget in his office.

"Not right here, no," he said. "I count on having someone good like Janet."

Among the large increases in spending this year was a nearly $375,000 increase in the cost of transportation, a direct result of the increase in fuel costs.

Allison was not available to comment for this story. She spent Wednesday with Ballowe and other school officials drawing up the proposed 2008-09 budget, which goes before the City Board of Education for first approval Monday night.

Ballowe has recommended the budget include a tax increase to help offset the deficit. If approved, the millage, or tax rate, would rise to 8.34, the maximum allowed by law, from the current 6.96 mills. He also has suggested $4.5 million in cuts to balance next year’s budget.

Under the proposed tax increase, the owner of a $183,800 house, the median price in the city, would pay an additional $253.64 in school taxes.

The school board has suggested its own cuts and revenue-raising ideas, with Allison and other school staff working this week to integrate those cuts with the ones proposed by Ballowe.

Ballowe has said the deficit stems from the district having a $3 million shortfall in property tax revenues in the 2006-07 budget year and not realizing the loss until this past fall, after this year’s budget was set and in motion.

On top of that, he said, the board approved this year’s budget with the same revenue projection that started the district slipping into the red in the first place.

Ballowe said he believed the district was operating in the black until this fall when Allison started reporting that the system was facing a deficit.

At that point, the system "already (was) into our budget for this year," he said. "You couldn’t make any changes. It’s very simple. We couldn’t make changes until this year."

Ballowe said the 2005-06 audit released last July also didn’t show any financial issues.

"I’m a simple person on that. I’m here for student achievement, and you depend on all your audits," he said.

Melody Marlowe, finance director for the city government, told the system last June that the system should budget $22.75 million in property tax revenues.

When Ballowe was asked why the school system projected $23.5 million in tax revenue, he said, "That was something that Melody and the (former) chief financial officer (Angela Adams) had." Adams left the system in August and was replaced by Allison.

According to financial records released Tuesday, the system actually will collect $21.8 million in tax revenue in the current budget year.

Ballowe said he believes that, overall, the system "has not been lavish with its spending."

"When you compare it back to the state amounts, we rank below the state average," he said. "It’s not like we’ve been exorbitant.

"But there is the other part you have to tie into the story: Look at the results. Some people ought to say, ‘How can Gainesville spend that little and get those results that they have?’"

Few people have complained about the school system’s results.

School board member Maria Calkins addressed that point at the board’s budget work session on Tuesday.

"There is no question about the quality of the education," she said. "But now we look at the quality of the finances and the financial management."

In Wednesday’s interview, Ballowe also discussed a May 19 memo in which he accused board members of possibly violating his civil rights and holding illegal closed meetings to discuss his future.

In his memo, Ballowe accused the board of "inappropriate, unethical or illegal" actions, including closed executive sessions on Feb. 19 and April 21, which he said may have violated Georgia’s Open Meetings Act.

Ballowe said Wednesday that he believes the board has put him in the improper position of resolving disputes between board members when they should be policing themselves.

He also said that board members are addressing individual staff members, apart from meetings, when they should "funnel back through a team."

"There has to be a partnership, and there is no partnership," Ballowe said. "I’m asking them to set boundaries (and) ... how do they operate as a board. ... I want guidelines, pure and simple."

Board member Sammy Smith declined to comment. Calkins, Willie Mitchell, David Syfan and Kelvin Simmons couldn’t be reached for comment on the matter.

Ballowe didn’t say how the board violated the state’s Open Meetings Act in the executive sessions. He did say the board should conduct his evaluation, which is due at the end of this month, in the open.

"I expect it to be open. I don’t expect it to be hidden," he said. "That’s one of the things about the Gainesville model — everything has been transparent."

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