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State school budget cuts could be severe
Georgias $1.4 billion deficit could stifle operations
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THE BLITZ: Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe at Gainesville


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School systems across Georgia may be forced to close schools, fire teachers or raise taxes to offset mounting budget deficits, according to a scenario presented Thursday to the state Board of Education.

Georgia schools could be looking at as much as a $1.4 billion deficit in formula funding next year, money that is used to meet mandated class-size requirements and to pay teacher salaries.

In Hall County, this could mean $13 million less in state funding next year, said Superintendent Will Schofield.

At Thursday’s board meeting, state Superintendent Kathy Cox said local school systems may have to take unprecedented steps to balance their budgets.

Later Thursday, Gov. Sonny Perdue, acknowledging 15 straight months of state revenue declines, announced plans to cut an additional $342 million from his 2011 budget, which would include an additional $100 million from education.

Among the ideas discussed at the state level were increasing the size of classes, cutting salaries, furloughing teachers for 10 days and shortening the school year by five days. But officials said local officials still may be forced to close schools, lay off teachers, eliminate programs or raise taxes.

“People are going to have to realize that these cuts are huge and it will not be business as usual in education,” Cox said. “We can’t bury our heads in the sand and say we’re not hurting education.”

Both Schofield and Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer all but ruled out raising taxes as a way to offset the deficits.

“(Our school board) has been incredibly sensitive to the fact that our entire community is hurting,” Schofield said. “Raising taxes is as far down the list as we can get it.”

But both superintendents said other ideas — including making classes larger or letting teachers go — have to remain as options.

“We have to plan for the worst,” Dyer said.

The Hall County school board already has floated the idea of closing at least one school to save money.

School systems are facing these tough choices because state revenue continues to decline, down 9.9 percent in February.

Perdue’s initial proposed 2011 budget includes an $839 million deficit in school formula funding. It was not immediately clear how Perdue’s announcement that he would cut an additional $100 million in funding would impact local school budgets.

Scott Austensen, the state’s deputy superintendent for finance and business operations, told the state board prior to Perdue’s announcement that the governor’s revenue estimates could be high because he was factoring in a hospital bed tax and an increase in the tobacco tax — two ideas that face a skeptical legislature.

Austensen said the formula deficit could be as high as $1.5 billion, meaning schools, on average, would receive about $525 per student less in state funding next year.

“How in the world are schools systems supposed to operate a school with $525 less per student?” Cox asked.

Larry E. Winter, the 9th District representative on the school board, hopes parents understand how deep these cuts could go.

“What I’m taking away from this is the magnitude of what we are asking (school systems) to, along with us, jointly deal with,” Winter said. “These are major cuts that are going to affect everyone.”

One idea being floated is to reduce the number of days in the school year from 180 to 175. To accommodate 10 furlough days, teachers also would lose five planning days during the year.

Dyer said the Gainesville system, with a large number of inner-city children, will need to work with agencies such as the Boys & Girls Clubs and the YMCA to make such a plan work.

“We have to be careful not to overburden the agencies that take our children when we aren’t in session,” Dyer said. “We’d have to identify when we can (close for 5 days) to have the least impact on families.”

Both Dyer and Schofield remain optimistic that better days are head. They said the budget challenges give their system the opportunity to set priorities.

“We didn’t go looking for this crisis,” Schofield said. “It came and found us.”