Schools plan options to absorb budget cuts

It's a guessing game at this point, but area school officials say they're bracing for what could be more large funding cuts after legislators reconvene in January.

 

"We're the biggest receiver of (state) money, and it looks like we're going to take the biggest hit," said Richmond County school board member Jack Padgett, referring to statewide education funding.

Mr. Padgett, who serves as the board's legislative liaison, said projections have shown that Richmond County could face $5 million to $7 million more in cuts, but nothing will be known for sure until after the session starts.

Richmond County school board members recently asked school system controller Gene Spires to work up a "best case" scenario and two "worst case" scenarios on the impact of cuts.

Those results, presented in a Dec. 8 meeting, include scenarios in which operations stay as they are to others requiring more operational cost savings or even furloughs, although Mr. Spires said nothing is definite. The best-case showed how the system could maintain its status quo if funding stays as is.

The two worst-case scenarios detail what could happen if cuts range from $2.4 million to $5 million. The $2.4 million cut could occur if state revenue projections fall short by $350 million. The $5 million cut could result from a $450 million shortfall.

In the $2.4 million scenario, Mr. Spires' report presents a few options, including one that involves savings achieved by delaying a state plan that would have cost the school system about $2 million in added health insurance costs. The plan has been delayed until fiscal year 2011, so the $2 million in savings could be used in 2010 to offset the state cut.

The other option would be to hold the $2 million to meet cuts in the future. In that case, Mr. Spires said, one or two furlough days could be considered in addition to energy-saving efforts, and other cost-cutting measures.

In the $5 million scenario, Mr. Spires said, the $2 million in health insurance cost savings could be used, but additional expense reductions or a few furlough days might also be considered.

Already this year, Richmond County teachers' pay has been cut the equivalent of five furlough days.

Mr. Spires said he doesn't see a need for layoffs in fiscal year 2010.

IN COLUMBIA COUNTY, schools Superintendent Charles Nagle told state lawmakers this month that any more state cuts will directly affect instruction. Already, the system has lost $13.8 million in state funding. The system was able to maintain a high instruction level thanks to $5.7 million in federal stimulus funds, Mr. Nagle said.

Lawmakers didn't promise that more education cuts won't come, but they did say during a Dec. 8 meeting that such cuts would be considered last.

During a November meeting with area business leaders, state Rep. Ben Harbin, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said legislators are looking to trim another $350 million from the budget. Earlier this month, state officials said those estimates have risen to $700 million.

Gov. Sonny Perdue has already slashed the budget by about $900 million. Though lawmakers told school officials they have not discussed more teacher furloughs, Columbia County officials recently changed the second-semester calendar to give teachers Jan. 4 off. The semester starts Jan. 5, but teachers typically arrive a day early to prepare for students' return.

Should Mr. Perdue require more furloughs, Mr. Nagle said, he intends to use Jan. 4 to cover at least one of those days.

IN AIKEN COUNTY, Comptroller Tray Traxler said the district has the option of putting $4.8 million from last year's budget toward contingency, which should help it survive Monday's 5 percent cuts from the state Budget and Control board. The district furloughed teachers five days earlier this year, which saved $2.4 million and got it through the first set of cuts this school year.

Faced with a $12 million deficit last year, and anticipating a similar budget for 2010-11, Aiken County decided not to use federal stimulus money.

"We set money aside in contingency because we thought there would be some cuts," Mr. Traxler said. "Looking back on it, we were right in our planning."

Mr. Traxler will begin preparing budget information in January.

Reach Preston Sparks, Donnie Fetter or Julia Sellers at (706) 724-0851.