Starting Monday, area schools and the students who attend them face another year of challenges and uncertainty.
There will be more furloughs, bigger classes in some cases and possibly a midfiscal-year state funding cut. Richmond County's next superintendent has yet to be named. Amid the uncertainty, there also is a pending bill the U.S. Senate recently passed that could provide some relief to schools through $10 billion in school grants to prevent teacher layoffs. Local officials, though, aren't sure how the money could be used, or what strings would be attached if the House approves it this week and it's signed by the president.
One of the most obvious examples of cuts affecting instruction this year is the phasing out of Spanish-language instruction in Columbia County middle schools. The school system has lost $21 million in state funding since 2007, including about $6 million for this school year.
Spanish classes once were offered to seventh- and eighth-graders. Starting this year, the course is an option only for eighth-graders who already have taken the seventh-grade class. Next year, the program will be eliminated.
Columbia County also included five furlough days for teachers, shortened its calendar two days by eliminating some pre-planning and post-planning days, cut out scheduled parent-teacher conferences in favor of staff development, and created a new schedule for arts instruction in elementary schools.
Before this year, elementary pupils would see music or art teachers once every five days. Now, the pupils will see those instructors once every six days. The added day allows some schools to share music and art instructors.
In Richmond County, no programs have been cut, but the system has instituted eight furlough days and left about 35 teaching vacancies unfilled to help offset more than $20 million in state funding cuts this year.
Officials say the unfilled teaching positions won't have much of an effect on a system that has about 2,500 certified teachers, meaning a class here or there might have an extra student.
"As teachers, we deal with what is handed down," said Garrett Elementary Principal Paula Kaminski, adding that though there will be fewer instructional days because of furloughs, teachers will adjust to the lost instructional time.
Richmond County's furlough days will result in three fewer instructional days for students -- Nov. 22 and 23 and Feb. 22. One of the furloughs cut a pre-planning day for teachers on Aug. 3. The rest -- Oct. 22, Feb. 21, March 18 and May 25 -- are on post-planning days or professional learning days for teachers.
"Professional learning throughout the year helps teachers regroup, define goals of the school and/or system," Kaminski said in an e-mail. "It allows teachers to work together to make plans on how best to teach the students in their classes using best teaching practices.
"It might make things tight in a world where everything else is tight, but I don't see it creating a major problem. ... To not have these days will make us look at our daily agendas and use our time more wisely."
By November, if state revenues don't improve, Georgia school districts could be faced with millions more in state funding cuts.
"We are hopeful that any additional cuts can be absorbed by continuing to spend conservatively," said Dr. Carol Rountree, the executive director of student services for Richmond County.
Columbia County Superintendent Charles Nagle expects money problems to be even worse next year. He said he hopes to avoid more classroom cuts. A committee is forming to examine possible cuts to middle school sports programs, he said.
Size of classes
Richmond County's school board recently agreed to keep its pupil-to-teacher maximums unchanged from last year, which was an increase of two students per class from two years ago. Class sizes have grown in past years because the state funding wasn't there to pay for additional teachers, preventing larger classes from splitting.
Two Richmond County school board members recently said they wished their county's classroom sizes were smaller to make it easier for teachers to focus on a single child.
A U.S. Department of Education report has concluded that reducing class sizes to fewer than 20 students results in higher student achievement. In Richmond and Columbia counties, most classrooms have at least 20 students.
A recent state ruling allowing local school boards to set their own class-size maximums will give the districts greater flexibility this year, should enrollment increase.
Top job empty
In Richmond County, there are questions about what a new superintendent might implement.
Dr. Roy "Cole" Pugh, a candidate who retired in June as superintendent of the Eagle Mountain-Saginaw Independent School District in Fort Worth, Texas, has said he would examine the district's curriculum and the quality of materials given to teachers. Interim Superintendent James Whitson has said a new superintendent likely would be involved in determining whether the district should accept federal Race to the Top money and the strings attached to it -- if Georgia is selected for the funds in the fall.
The board is expected to select its superintendent from two candidates Tuesday. The other candidate is Dr. Frank Roberson, the superintendent of Marlboro County School District in Bennettsville, S.C. A third finalist, Dr. Faron Hollinger, who retired in April as superintendent of Baldwin County Public Schools in Bay Minette, Ala., withdrew from the selection process Friday.
A balancing act
In Aiken County, teachers will not receive a salary increase for experience this year, but they won't have to take furlough days. That action will save the district just over $900,000. Last year, the district furloughed instructional staffers for five days and all other staffers 10 days.
When the furlough days were announced last year, teachers had to rely on monthly early-release days to squeeze in any training and group planning, and they regularly voiced their frustrations with the school district about the lack of time to collaborate. This year, the staff will have nine in-service days in addition to early release each month.
The school board said it will begin the 2011-12 budgeting early in the fall, and expects to lose more than $10 million in federal stabilization and stimulus funds.