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Budget decisions looming for BOE

Decatur County Schools Superintendent Ralph Jones talked Thursday night about future furloughs, the next school year’s budget and several issues being discussed in the Georgia Legislature, which could affect local schools across the state.

Jones reviewed a list of legislative issues regarding education during the regular portion of Thursday’s Board of Education meeting and discussed the urgency of budget planning to be done in the next month.

One change to state law made during the current legislative session was an extension of the deadline to offer contracts to teachers, who are technically state employees. In the past, the deadline has been April 15. But because of the state government’s ongoing revenue crisis, in which the status of funding to be cut or left intact is constantly in flux, legislators pushed the date back to May 15, about two weeks after they will conclude their 2010 session, on April 29.

Jones and local schools’ chief financial officer, Tim Matthews, have said they know substantial cuts will have to be made from an already squeezed budget to comply with reduced state funding. Exactly how much may not be known for a couple more weeks, but school board members plan to be knowledgeable in advance about what their options are. In addition to a previously called board meeting on Monday, April 19, to discuss a search for a new superintendent to succeed the retiring Jones, the board will also meet next Thursday, April 22, to discuss the next school year’s budget.

Jones said he, Matthews and a subset of the school board met last Monday to brainstorm about various ways to make cuts.

“Nothing [among the ideas] is popular,” Matthews said. “They all have pros and cons and all of them affect our system’s employees in some way.”

Some of the options for making cuts include the following: Reducing or eliminating supplement pay some teachers receive for performing special duties, such as coaching sports teams; eliminating positions that are solely funded with local money; reducing personnel; and scheduling more unpaid furlough days for teachers and staff.

Following the six furlough days that had to be scheduled during the current school year, Jones has said six or more of the unpopular furlough days are likely to be included in the 2010-2011 calendar if local schools receive $3 million less from the state than the current school year. While acknowledging that Decatur County schools have about $3 million in reserves in the bank, Jones stressed that money has to be kept reserved in the event of an emergency. Three-million dollars would only be enough to pay one month of the school system’s payroll, according to school officials.

There are some hopeful points that have came out of the current legislative session, Jones said. One is a bill that has been passed by both the Georgia House and Senate, which aims to provide school systems with flexibility in setting their class sizes, additional days of instruction and other matters that affect the total cost of operating schools.

Four of the 190 school days set by state law are designated as being for the make-up of other school days lost to emergencies, such as bad weather. According to Jones’ interpretation of the new law, if those four make-up days were not needed—for example, no days were lost due to bad weather during the current school year—then they could take the place of four furlough days, partially reducing the financial impact on teachers and staff.