It's a good thing the Clarke County School District hasn't cut art or music programs despite decreased funding from state and local sources, because it's about to have to get creative.
But rather than piece together a Fiscal Year 2013 budget with glue and Popsicle sticks, CCSD Superintendent Phil Lanoue and his staff have submitted a budget that whittles spending in a variety of places. There are a few contentious cuts on the list—specifically, 32 first-grade paraprofessionals, 16 media center parapros and several school counselors and psychologists—but Lanoue noted that the way state and local revenues have been trending in recent years, it's time to use some imagination in the ways the district cuts its expenses.
"We have to look at how we offer our services differently," said Lanoue as he prepared to present his FY13 budget to the school board Apr. 19. "Some things are good, others are not."
The board unanimously approved the budget proposal, which will undergo three public hearings before it's finalized at the June 14 school board meeting. The public can weigh in May 15 at Alps Road Elementary School, May 22 at Gaines Elementary School and May 24 at the school district's offices on Mitchell Bridge Road. All meetings are 6–7 p.m.
In the past three years, the state's "austerity cuts" have trimmed the school district's allocation by about $27 million, and there's no talk in the state legislature of those austerity measures going away.
The austerity cuts are tied to a formula called QBE funding, from the Quality-Based Education Act. This sets an amount, per student, that is funded by the state. Lanoue said austerity cuts started during Gov. Sonny's Purdue's term, when the state legislature decided there wasn't enough to cover QBE costs. "We've lost $27 million in my tenure; that's a lot of money that we didn't get because they didn't fund the formula like they did five years ago."
Add on annual expenses that keep going up—health insurance rate hikes are averaging $1.9 million a year, and mandatory teacher pay raises another $1 million or so—and you get a budget that is increasingly squeezed.
Last year the school district received $110 million in money from federal, state and county sources. State funds make up about 50 percent of the district's budget, according to the Georgia Department of Education, and about 40 percent come from local coffers. The school's operating budget for last fiscal year was about $121 million; for FY2013, without any changes, that budget would have increased to $125 million.
The proposed FY2013 budget whittles expenses down to $117, borrowing from reserves until the following year, when the budget will have to be be cut back to $110—assuming state funding remains at its current level.
"It's been (reduced) $9 million every year," Lanoue said of the state's contribution. "So, if we get $46 million, it's really [supposed to be] $55 million," according to the QBE formula, Lanoue said. And then there's the issue of charter schools, which, if a statewide voter referendum passes this November, he said, would further eat away at the schools' funding. "What they're saying is the money that goes to the districts [could] now go to charters.
"The bottom line is, there is no conversation [in the legislature] about reducing austerity levels," said Lanoue. Luckily for the county, the state-mandated freeze on property tax assessment increases has expired, which means the expected drop in property tax revenues won't be as harsh as originally expected.
In 2010 and 2011, assessed values didn't increase—but if a property's value decreased, Athens-Clarke County Mayor Nancy Denson told Flagpole, it would be assessed at that lower level. Partially due to that, the tax digest shrank about 4 percent each year. But newly released numbers for this year show a decrease of just 2.7 percent—which could mean $1 million going back to the schools, and about $800,000 to the county, said Denson, a former ACC tax commissioner.
Rather than making slashes with a red pen, Lanoue tried to take more of a surgical approach, whittling out a teacher or two here and a supervisor or coordinator there, streamlining some services and looking to other sources of funding to fill the gaps for others.
In the case of the first-grade parapros, Lanoue noted that federal Title I money—grants that come from the federal government tied to the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, which cannot be used for the district's operating expenses—can instead be used by the schools receiving the funds to bring back their parapros. That money is already used by each school to purchase supplies and hire staff to fit its own improvement plan, said Gaines Elementary Principal Phyllis Stewart, who noted her school uses its Title I money to fund materials and additional personnel. The funding goes toward "whatever we need to use it for to increase the achievement of students," she said.
But the issue of filling the gaps left by the parapros could also have a positive side, said Lanoue. While detailing the $736,000 saved by eliminating positions, Lanoue suggested it opens an opportunity for more direct involvement from citizens. "This is one place where we have to look to our community" or to the University of Georgia, Lanoue said, for volunteers. "We're going to have to look at one arrangement like that with our parapros."
Athens Banner-Herald columnist Myra Blackmon agreed that the proposed cuts offer a chance for the community to step in and be more involved in the schools. Without more involvement from parents and other volunteers, she asked after the Apr. 19 meeting, how will we close the gap in the budget? Blackmon has been soliciting ideas for ways to cut budgets at individual schools at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So far, ideas are varied and show progressive thinking, she said, including redrawing attendance zones to make better use of bus routes, switching large buses for small ones on routes with fewer kids and converting buses to biofuel. "This has got to be surgical," she said of the cuts.