The school year began this month in Gainesville with a much different mood and atmosphere than it did last year.
Classes began on Aug. 11 for city schools with higher enrollment and a much sunnier outlook than they did in 2008, when they opened with a cloud still hanging over the system from a summer of turmoil. A year later, that cloud has passed and the present and future seem much brighter.
Last year, a budget deficit that seemed to catch most folks off guard led to the ouster of superintendent Steven Ballowe and put the school board and staff on the defensive. The system managed to spend itself $5.4 million into the hole, and sought to climb back out with a proposed hike in school taxes for city residents. That move was, to say the least, resoundingly unpopular among taxpayers, even before the economy headed downhill later in the year.
The controversy divided city residents, at times even along racial lines, with some supporting Ballowe’s academic success while others vilified him for letting the school district’s finances slip so far into the red and waiting too long to address the problem. Ballowe was fired by the board on July 3, 2008, leaving the school system and the community reeling, all badly in need of a unifying figure to mend their frayed confidence.
Enter Merrianne Dyer. A Gainesville High graduate and longtime educator and principal in the city system, she was chosen on an interim basis to put the pieces back together. By choosing a respected figure from inside the school offices instead of seeking an unknown outsider, the board was able to calm tensions in the community as well as within the school office.
Dyer’s calming influence and respected persona has only been part of the turnaround. She tackled the budget deficit head on, in a time when all school administrators are facing state-mandated budget cuts plus a drop in local tax revenues. In a way, the economic problems everyone has faced help put Gainesville in the same boat as other districts, with all superintendents forced to make difficult choices on what to cut and how their dwindling resources should be spent.
Dyer’s honest and direct approach was in contrast to Ballowe’s, whose success as a classroom innovator was offset by his seeming lack of interest in managing the system’s finances, then an unwillingness to own up to the mistakes quickly
A successful school system must achieve two key goals: Educate students effectively while handling the people’s money with care and efficiency. A superintendent that succeeds at one but fails at the other is not going to last. So it was with Ballowe, a brilliant administrator undone by that one serious flaw.
So Dyer got to work. And the results are impressive.
A recent state audit into the system’s finances — something the previous regime should have initiated long ago — showed that the deficit that covered fiscal year 2008 was mostly the result of computer software that failed to document expenses properly, and not willful wrongdoing on anyone’s part. That was the good news. The bad news is that running up a deficit in a time when the money flowing in is greatly reduced makes it that much harder to break even.
Despite this, Dyer and the system staff have managed to make the difficult but correct choices on how to trim expenses. By doing so, they have cut the deficit significantly and now can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
In the meantime, they have been able to soften any impact on classroom instruction while rebuilding a workable financial base. The new Gainesville Middle School, which was funded by a special 1-cent sales tax and well under way when the budgeting problems emerged, opened this fall on time to rave reviews with a modern new building the city can be proud of. Despite some early traffic problems, which were not unexpected, the $33 million school welcomed some 1,300 students and should stand as a tangible symbol of the system’s recent and past successes.
What’s more, the CRCT scores posted over the summer under the federal No Child Left Behind standards showed considerable progress by students in the city and Hall County, despite everyone’s struggle with finances. That shows that even in difficult economic times, learning can and should continue as before.
Much of the credit also goes to the system’s teachers, who face unpaid furlough days and salary cuts yet still put in full days to make sure students don’t fall behind. Their loyalty to their profession, the schools and the kids offers hope that even in tough times, our school leaders will not let our children fail.
Of course, all the news isn’t rosy. Gov. Sonny Perdue recently asked for yet another round of state budget cuts, including another 3 percent for schools. District leaders must continue to do more with less, forcing them to be creative in ways they never imagined when their coffers were full. The economy may be rebounding, but slowly, and many still are looking for jobs and signs of hope. Tax revenues continue to slip, and no one knows what the future holds.
But in Gainesville, city residents can take solace in knowing that their schools have already seen darker days and emerged with their integrity and classroom ambitions firmly in place.
Thanks to the work of Dyer, the system staff, principals and a crew of dedicated teachers, this school year opened with bright hopes for a successful year, in the classrooms and beyond. After what they went through last year, that is no small achievement and worthy of our appreciation.