We all want our schools to be shining temples of learning. We may argue about exactly how much money goes to education and on what that money is spent. We may debate whether we need more teachers in one area and fewer administrators in another.
But the bottom line is that we all want our schools to be places where our children are getting the best education possible. They are the next generation of leaders, and they deserve every opportunity they can get.
That's why it was disheartening to learn that the Hall County school system is cutting some 100 teaching positions, plus some other jobs, to balance its 2010 budget.
About 55 elementary school teachers, including 22 in special education and 17 in the English Speakers of Other Languages program, will not be rehired. Nine central office positions and eight school counselor positions will be eliminated.
The system currently is preparing a $208 million budget for next year, $10 million smaller than the current budget. Cutting the 100 teachers will save between $5 million and $6 million.
Unfortunately, none of this should be surprising. We're in the midst of the worst economic situation since the late 1970s and early 1980s. Nearly every type of business is feeling the financial pinch, and many are forced to lay off workers. Unemployment continues to rise, now above 8 percent in Georgia and nationwide.
Certainly no one wants cuts in their area, but as money get tighter, somebody's got to take a hit, whether it's business, government or, unfortunately, local schools.
Tax collections are down, student enrollments are down and the state's austerity budget cuts are nearly six times what was anticipated. The options are simple: Cut spending or raise taxes, and in this environment, raising taxes is a bad idea.
While any decisions of this nature are ripe for second-guessing — some of it justified — we believe Superintendent Will Schofield and the Hall County school board have done a good job of managing the system's finances.
There's an unpredictably with school budgets. You plan new schools and hire teachers in expectation of growth. When that growth doesn't come, coupled with a severe downturn in the economy, you have to regroup.
No one likes the idea of cutting teachers. It's easy to say we don't want any cuts that sacrifice what goes on in the classroom, that sacrifice the quality of education. It's harder, though, to make that a reality.
But the system still needs bus drivers, counselors, cafeteria workers and administrators. As deep as these cuts have to be, it was inevitable that the classroom would be affected.
Sadly, good teachers and good employees are being lost. Special education and ESOL teachers took a disproportionate hit. That's an unfortunate side effect of such drastic budget reductions.
It's hard to argue, as some have, that the system had its head in the sand about budget problems. We believe the school system did much to cut costs before jobs were sacrificed, including the "South Hall shift" proposal. Rather than fully staff a new school, the system decided to send Flowery Branch High students to the new Spout Springs school, Davis Middle students to old Flowery Branch High, South Hall Middle students to Davis and then renovate South Hall Middle. The move will save the system $1.5 million in expenses.
The county system could end the year with a surplus of about $5 million, down from $8 million at the beginning of the current budget year. Schofield has chosen — wisely, we believe — to protect that surplus should the economic situation get significantly worse.
Hall County Education Association President Steven Wang said that, while some teachers are understandably upset about losing their jobs, he believes Schofield has been "pretty up front" about the system's economic situation. Wang said his biggest concern is that more cuts could be coming, and, in our opinion, having a strong surplus could help lessen the need for cuts that go much deeper than the ones announced last week.
Some have argued that Schofield should have waited to see what portion of the federal stimulus money earmarked for education would flow into the Hall system before he made these cuts. Stimulus money is coming, but guidelines on how it can be spent remain uncertain. About $77 billion has been earmarked for education, but only some of that can go toward teacher pay.
Waiting on a federal cash infusion also would adversely effect the ability of teachers to find other jobs. Schofield chose to announce the layoffs in early March, well in advance of the April 15 date on which systems must lock in full-time teacher contracts for next year. Had he waited, laid-off teachers may have had no opportunity to find employment in other counties, such as Gwinnett, which is expected to hire a couple hundred new teachers next year.
He also says stimulus money wouldn't have changed his decision because it is a short-term boost only for a system that needs long-term budget adjustments. The same is true for Gainesville, which may be able to save some teacher jobs but still plans to announce its staff layoffs this week.
As tough and unpopular as the decisions are, delaying the opening of a new school and reducing personnel are signs of good stewardship of tax dollars. Hall County didn't follow the lead of Gainesville city schools and spend money it didn't have, even before the recession, then come back to taxpayers wanting more.
The ultimate goal for Schofield and the school board should be quality education, which remains attainable despite these tough decisions. They must make decisions that maximize benefit of tax dollars to improve student performance. Unfortunately, that results in tough decisions by the superintendent and the school board. To not have acted in a decisive manner would have been irresponsible.
When the good times return, those who weather the downturn will be in the best position to grow and prosper again, and that includes the school system. It cannot be business as usual for any governmental entity now, and that includes our schools.