Six local legislators met with 10 school board officials at Pine Hill Middle School for breakfast to hear the system’s concerns and priorities for the 2012 legislative session.
Instead of making a wish list of needs to hand to the lawmakers, Acting Superintendent James Whitson highlighted two major financial issues burdening the district. He stressed the shortfall of state funding for the pre-kindergarten program and the increased cost of non-certified employee health insurance.
During about an hour of conversation, the breakfast was official but casual.
Speakers took turns behind a lectern in the classroom turned dining hall.
When questions popped up, board members and legislators addressed one another by first names.
School board member Jack Padgett, one of three board members at the breakfast, said he would have liked a better turnout of board members but appreciated the open conversation.
If they can’t meet all the system’s needs, Whitson asked the legislators to at least do what they can to prevent more state funding cuts to the district.
To paint the picture, Whitson described how the system uses $16 million more in expenditures than it takes in as revenue. Reserve funds have also dwindled to $24 million, even though it takes $22 million to cover one month of operations in the district.
“Do what you can to minimize what is happening to us right now,” he said.
One of the biggest challenges comes from the pre-k program, which is facing a $143,000 shortfall because of an under enrollment of children.
Because the state pays $3,000 per pre-k pupil, the system is suffering with 47 pupils below capacity. Even without that funding for full classes, the system still has to pay a full staff of teachers’ salaries and utilities.
“We are forced to close some of our centers before the school year is out because we cant afford it,” Whitson said. “That’s how dire the situation is.”
School officials also asked the lawmakers to intervene in the proposed cost increases for non-certified employee health insurance. The system is facing a $2 million cost increase for the 1,338 non-certified employees in fiscal year 2013.
The increase would require $10 million from the reserve fund to cover the costs unless legislators can intervene.
“We simply can’t, we can’t do that,” Whitson said. “We don’t have the revenue, and the economy is not turning around fast enough for us to do that.”
Other priorities for the school system discussed during breakfast are in line with items proposed by the Georgia School Boards Association including: a revised state tax policy to address erosion of state revenue through sales and other tax exemptions, protecting local boards’ authority over funding use and managing constitutional authority of school boards.
As far as the plea for assistance with financial issues, state Rep. Quincy Murphy said budgets are tight and progress will be difficult.
Murphy was one of four legislators present, along with Rep. Henry “Wayne” Howard, Rep. Gloria Frazier and state Sen. Jessie Stone. Field representatives were present for U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson and U.S. Rep. John Barrow.
“This is going to be a major challenge,” Murphy said. “Funding from the lottery is not where we can support growth in Georgia. But education is still number one.”