Before the Richmond County Board of Education approved a 2013-14 budget that included a property tax increase, layoffs and an extra furlough day, board member Jimmy Atkins wanted to clear the air.
“We value the staff of this county,” he said. “We value the hard work. The (Criterion Referenced Competency Tests) results this week showed the hard work that the folks have done. We’re being asked to do more with less, and people can get mad with this board if they want to, but the fact of the matter is we’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got to work with, and if they want to get mad with somebody – I’ve said it time and time again – they need to go talk to their state legislators and their federal legislators because that’s where the cuts are coming from. They’re not coming from anyone sitting around this table here.”
Citing steep state funding cuts, the board on Thursday approved a $233 million budget that includes the elimination of 135 positions and nine furlough days, one extra than what was proposed in the initial budget approved earlier this month. Atkins and board member Barbara Pulliam voted no while Jack Padgett was absent.
Because employees will continue to retire or move away during the summer, Chief Human Resources Officer Norman Hill could not provide an exact count for how many layoffs will have to be made and how many of the 135 position cuts will be taken care of through attrition.
Hill said there are currently more than 100 vacancies in the system, but not all of those can be used to fulfill the cuts because of certification issues, especially in middle and high school.
Even though 75 teaching positions are being eliminated, no current teachers will have to be laid off.
“There will be a lot of transfers, but they will all have jobs,” said board attorney Pete Fletcher.
The bulk of the layoffs will fall on removing 30 custodians, 22 paraprofessionals and four clerical positions. By adding a ninth furlough day to the budget, board members saved $936,000 they will use to save some of those classified jobs.
The final budget also does not include three controversial expenditures proposed earlier this month: a $78,000 Gallup Inc. hiring tool, an $85,458 human resources coordinator and a $61,413 human resources compliance officer.
“This helps toward maintaining certified employees,” said board member Helen Minchew, referring to teaching positions.
This budget cycle was noted as the first time individual schools were brought into the process to have a voice in where to cut spending. Facing a $23 million shortfall, each principal was tasked with cutting 7 percent of his or her school’s expenditures, whether that be in utility costs, staff or otherwise.
Because the schools were initially told the 7 percent cuts would help limit furlough days to eight, Atkins said he was not able to support a final budget that increases furlough days to nine.
Superintendent Frank Roberson said the extra day was needed, not only to save jobs, but also because not all of the recommendations that came from schools were usable. He said principals “understood the limitations we were up against.”
“They thought they were going to get one of their furlough days back, and that had to be a little bit of a morale booster,” Atkins said. “Now ... we’re taking that away from them; along with that we’re being asked to raise taxes, so many of those folks live in Richmond County so they’re going to pay more property taxes, they’re still going to have nine furlough days and unfortunately some of them are not going to have a job.”
The budget includes raising property taxes for Richmond County residents, but public meetings to set that millege rate will not be held until next month.
Several board members described this budget cycle as one of the worst they’ve dealt with and pointed to the 11th-hour decisions they had to make unnecessarily. Roberson said his staff will begin planning for the 2014-15 budget as early as this fall to give board members more time to make difficult decisions.
Board member Frank Dolan said he wanted that process to begin “the minute after” Thursday’s budget was approved. He added the board should consider any measure to improve its financial situation, even if it meant reducing the number of operating schools so the board can sell the property.
“This has been awful for me to worry about this, I think it’s been awful for the board worrying about this, I think it’s been awful for the employees, I think it’s been awful for the parents and children,” Dolan said. “The whole community has suffered through this process … I don’t know what else to do, but I think going forward we don’t ever want to go through this again.”