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Gainesville schools budget deficit may be down to $5.6 million
Pastor says board chairman vote 'reeks with discrimination and bigotry'
The Rev. Marcus Dixon voices displeasure about last week’s decision by the Gainesville school board to fire then-Superintendent Steven Ballowe.

Gainesville city school board expects to have a deficit of about $5.6 million rather than the $6.5 million deficit it previously anticipated, said board Chairman David Syfan.

Syfan announced that Janet Allison, director of finance for Gainesville schools, is hopeful the board will end fiscal year 2008 with a deficit smaller than the original $6.5 million deficit she estimated in May.

Allison was absent from the school board’s Monday work session due to the death of a friend, but Syfan said she told the board that according to financial records detailing expenditures through May 31, the school system now faces a $5.6 million deficit.

For the past two months, the Gainesville City Board of Education has been scrambling to finalize a budget for the 2009 fiscal year, which started July 1. Allison presented a tentative $61.6 million budget to the school board in June, but the board said it couldn’t pass a budget by the state Department of Education’s June 30 deadline due to numerous accounting errors made by the school system’s finance department during the last few years.

Several residents condemned the board’s decision to fire Steven Ballowe, former superintendent of Gainesville city schools, during the public comment portion of the meeting.

The Rev. Marcus Dixon, pastor of St. Paul United Methodist Church on Summit Street, described the board’s 3-2 vote to fire Ballowe Thursday as immoral and unethical. Dixon, who is black, said the three members who voted to fire Ballowe disenfranchised the black members of the school board. The 3-2 vote broke down along racial lines, with the white members voting to terminate Ballowe’s contract.

Dixon told the board he expected board member Kelvin Simmons, who was vice chairman last year, to be chairman when it determined a new leader Thursday. But the board voted Syfan, who is white, as its chairman with a 4-1 vote, and Simmons, who is black, as its vice chairman.

Board member Willie Mitchell, who is black, dissented.

"It reeks with discrimination and bigotry," Dixon said.

He added that he was displeased with the way the board and the community treated Ballowe in past weeks.

"Dr. Ballowe is a man that loves this community and loves the children," Dixon said. "We think he should be treated with respect."

Dixon invited board members and the community to an education rally to show support for the former superintendent.

The Newtown Florist Club and Gainesville-Hall County Chapter of the NAACP will host the meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday at St. Paul United Methodist Church on 705 Summit St.

Simmons said he was not concerned about his position on the board as vice chairman, but was concerned about the divided community.

"This community has got to heal," Simmons said. "This community has got to come together for the betterment of our children."

Rose Johnson-Mackey, co-pastor of Truth and Deliverance Outreach Ministries, said supporters of Ballowe are having trouble moving past his termination, but are willing to work with the school board toward their common goal of educating the children of Gainesville.

"It is not our intent to be adversarial in our communication with the board of education," Johnson-Mackey said. "Even if we don’t agree, we will make progress. At some point, this bridge will connect."

The board took no action on determining an interim superintendent, but Syfan said the board still hopes to appoint someone to the position by mid-July who "can bring communities together, is respected by teachers and the community and can give budget help."

Syfan said the board could appoint an educator within or outside the school system to the interim superintendent position for the next year as the board searches for a new superintendent.

In the meantime, the board determined that board treasurer Sammy Smith and Simmons, the board’s finance committee, will sign off on school board checks. Syfan said typically the school board treasurer and the superintendent both sign off on checks.

Citing personnel and potential litigation as topics to be discussed in executive session, the board spent nearly an hour in the closed meeting after the work session.

Smith said the board discussed communications between Ballowe’s legal representative and school board attorney Phil Hartley. Smith said Hartley briefed the board on possible litigation that could result from the board’s decision to fire Ballowe.

Hartley said Thursday that the board will have 60 days to determine whether Ballowe was fired with or without legal cause. According to Ballowe’s contract with the school board, if he was fired without legal cause, he could be entitled to the two years of salaries and fringe benefits remaining in his contract, which total about $444,000.

Ballowe said Thursday that he believes "100 percent" that he was fired without cause or justification.

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