School leader talks financial strain

Desperate for relief, Richmond County school leaders met with state legislators Tuesday morning and outlined the "perfect storm" pinching education finances.

 

Class-size reductions; unfunded, mandated pay raises; property tax exemptions; a millage cap lower than most; declining enrollment; a dwindling tax base; and increasing poverty are among the elements hitting the school system hard, Superintendent Dana Bedden said.

"It's like a perfect storm coming home now," he said. "We're getting to the point where we're going to probably have to lay people off if we keep going the way we're going."

Among the issues are:

- Declining enrollment: The loss of about 500 pupils cost $2.5 million last fiscal year, yet more teachers were needed to meet class-size mandates.

- Class size: Richmond County has been told by the state not to request any more class-size waivers. Exceeding the class-size limit by just one pupil requires a new class and the hiring of a new teacher. On average, a teacher's salary and benefits cost $69,180.

- Senior citizen exemptions: Exempting anyone 65 and older from paying any property tax shifts the burden to other property owners. The exemption doesn't erase the need for tax revenue. Richmond County's millage is at the cap, which is lower than that of most other school systems in Georgia.

- Financial reserves: Reserves helped balance this year's budget, but the reserves equal less than a month's operating expenses. It's recommended that two months' expenses be held in reserve.

- Vacant property: It is looking less likely that the sale of vacant property will generate the $1.5 million needed to balance the current budget.

- Economics: About 21 percent of Richmond County is living in poverty, much higher than neighboring Columbia County, and the median household income is much lower than the state average. Low-income families generate less tax revenue.

- More cuts: Gov. Sonny Perdue is withholding 2 percent from K-12 education and $428 million from the Homestead Tax Relief Grant. If the money isn't released, it will cost Richmond County $7 million.

If Richmond County absorbs all of Mr. Perdue's cuts, it will leave the school system with only a week's operating expenses in reserves. As it is, if a storm were to strike the county and close the school system temporarily, there wouldn't be enough money to pay employees, Dr. Bedden said.

"Basically, our people would not get a paycheck," he said. "So, we just killed the economy in this area because our district is just under 5,000 employees. If you put 5,000 people in this area out of work, you just killed Richmond County."

Though no decisions were made Tuesday, Richmond County delegation Chairman Quincy Murphy suggested the General Assembly consider easing class-size mandates and requirements that school systems spend 65 percent of their budget directly in the classroom.

Dr. Bedden also pushed for more cooperation among school leaders and legislators, businesses and the community, in addition to other counties.

"I think we need to stop having county line barriers," he said.

Richmond and Columbia counties should work together to recruit businesses, he said, emphasizing the dependence Columbia County has on Richmond County based on the numbers of commuters who make the drive each day.

"Richmond County disappears; this whole region will implode," Dr. Bedden said.

Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or greg.gelpi@augustachronicle.com.