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Georgias schools assess latest round of budget cuts
Jefferson High School seniors wait to buy parking passes during registration for the new school year. - photo by Tom Reed

State cuts to education
K-12: 3 percent cut + 3 furlough days
Technical College System of Georgia: 5 percent cut pending + 3 furlough days
University System of Georgia: 4, 6 or 8 percent cut pending, reduction plan likely to include furlough days

As schools, colleges and universities prepare to open their doors for another year, they are being asked again to review their own books and cut costs further, plan furloughs or submit various spending plans to their directing agencies.

Following a conference call Wednesday with the Georgia School Boards Association and Phil Hartley, who serves as multiple local districts’ school board attorney, K-12 system leaders are interpreting the legalities of Gov. Sonny Perdue’s call for cuts and forming plans to implement the most recent round.

Perdue announced last week K-12 school districts will take a 3 percent funding cut and the state’s 128,000 public school teachers will take three unpaid furlough days by the end of the calendar year. The cuts to education came alongside another 5 percent slash to state agencies and three days of furloughs to other state employees to help bridge a $900 million shortfall amid plummeting tax collections.

Jefferson schools Superintendent John Jackson said his teachers already gave up one of their planning days for a furlough day Monday. And they’ll take their second on Friday. Classes start Monday in the Jefferson district. The final furlough day will be taken Oct. 12, he said.

As for the 3 percent cut for local districts, Jackson said he’s not yet sure where the ax will fall for Jefferson City Schools.

"We’re looking at several possibilities. We’re just trying to make up our minds as to what those cuts are going to look like," he said. "We have been in this mode already for so long, it’s becoming much harder to make those decisions because we’ve already cut so much."

The state Board of Education approved flexibility for Georgia’s school districts on Tuesday, paving the way for systems to furlough teachers and other employees. The board voted to allow districts to fall short of the number of days the state requires educators to work each year, reducing the teacher work year to 187 days.

The school districts are not required to enact the furloughs, but the state is cutting the sum of those days’ salaries from the districts’ funding. While the state’s largest districts — Atlanta, Cobb and DeKalb — are finding other ways to make up the funding cut, most of the state’s 180 school districts are expected to go along with the furloughs.

Gainesville schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said her system will present three furlough options to employees Monday through the Gainesville schools’ Web site. She said stakeholders can then vote on which option they prefer. August planning days are not being considered, Dyer said.

At the school board’s Aug. 17 meeting, the board likely will approve the days to be taken off and discuss how the board might cut another 3 percent, she said. Dyer said every department at every system school is being asked to reduce expenditures but she’s not worried about overspending to start the school year.

She said with the system’s $3.6 million deficit, Hartley advised the Gainesville system to "not do anything drastic and quick before you get all of the information."

Hall County schools Superintendent Will Schofield said his system is considering taking the furlough days on Aug. 7 and Oct. 13 and letting teachers leave when students do on half days taking place on Nov. 24 and Dec. 18. Normally teachers would stay at work for professional development after students left on those half days, he said.

Schofield said the 3 percent cuts and the furloughs make up a nearly $5 million loss in state funding for the school system, but he’s "thankful" the system has been slow in hiring additional personnel for the upcoming school year. He said the Hall County school board will continue to be conservative in spending to safeguard the system’s $5.6 million surplus.

Both superintendents said they are bracing for additional furloughs that could come in the spring.

Schools under the University System of Georgia, like Gainesville State College and North Georgia College & State University, were asked to submit 4, 6 and 8 percent reduction plans to the system Monday, said university system spokesman John Millsaps.

He said it’s up to the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget to review the reduction plans for this fiscal year’s amended budget and next fiscal year’s budget. It falls upon the General Assembly to approve the cuts.

Millsaps said budgets under the University System of Georgia for fiscal year 2010, which began July 1, already were cut 12 percent compared to fiscal year 2009.

Perdue asked schools under the Technical College System of Georgia, such as Lanier Technical College, to take a roughly $17.6 million cut between a 5 percent state funding cut and three furlough days, said technical system spokesman Mike Light. Light said the technical system’s commissioner will make the decision early next week on how those cuts will be implemented.

He said soaring enrollment in the state’s technical schools and accompanying tuition payments have boosted colleges’ revenues somewhat.

"It’s difficult, but we can do it," Light said of the proposed cuts. "Each successive cut gets a little bit harder. But we’re not going to sit back over here and say that for the good of the state we can’t find something else to come back on or reduce. We’re going to try to keep our spending low, but at the same time it’s important that we get these folks into our classrooms and retrain them in those in-demand fields so they can go back out there and get a job now or when the economy improves."