School system's financial picture forcing heavy funding cuts

School system forced to keep making cuts
Richmond County Board of Education member Jack Padgett calls the school system's financial situation "dire."

Richmond County Board of Edu­cation member Jack Padg­ett has one word to describe the school system’s financial situation.

“Dire,” Padgett said. “D-I-R-E.”

The district is facing $19 million in continued state cuts along with $2.5 million in new reductions for the 2013-14 budget year, following suit with the $117 million Georgia has slashed locally over the past five years. In addition, Richmond County will have to pay $1.8 million more in health care costs for noncertified employees than last year, with more increases projected for 2015.

To make up for the losses, Superintendent Frank Rober­son last week instructed all principals to cut 7 percent from their schools’ budgets. The principals were given freedom in where the money could be drawn from, but worksheets given to them included options for personnel layoffs, utility cuts and reductions in the use of substitute teachers.

“It’s going to be difficult in some situations, but that’s where we are,” Padgett said.

For smaller schools such as Willis Foreman Elemen­tary, 7 percent means cutting $167,700. To larger schools such as the Academy of Richmond County, whose yearly expenditures top $7 million, Principal Malinda Cobb had to find almost $500,000 to slash.

“Part of the bulk of it is coming from personnel cuts,” Cobb said. “We’re going to have quite a few.”

She said her faculty members came together and got creative on where they could find any expense to do away with. They talked about selling used cooking oil and shutting lights off earlier. When teachers get sick, they plan to cover one another’s classes to avoid paying substitutes.

Anything to save a dollar.

“Everybody has been really trying to think outside the box,” Cobb said. “They’re getting tired … and they want the furloughs to go away, so having the option to be asked what to cut has been good.”

Willis Foreman Principal Brenda Taylor said there will be no layoffs on her campus because they are already working with a bare minimum staff. To save on energy costs, which ran $148,000 in 2011-12, Taylor said, the school will no longer open before 7:30 a.m. and will shut down by 4:45 p.m., even though many employees arrive early and stay late.

Lunchroom workers will not be allowed to turn the ovens on as early, and each custodial staff member will serve as an “energy conservation manager” who will be responsible for flipping light switches and shutting doors.

The process has been painful despite being able to avoid staff cuts, Taylor said.

“Federal money has pretty much dried up,” she said. “State money has taken a drastic cut, so this is something that’s just a direct reflection of our national state.”

Richmond Academy, Cross Creek High, Butler High, Freedom Park Elementary, Glenn Hills High, Hephzibah High, T.W. Josey High, Sego Middle and Westside High all face more than $300,000 in cuts, with Cross Creek topping the pack at $516,000 in reductions. Required cuts at the remaining schools range between $100,000 and $300,000.

According to Controller Gene Spires, those 7 percent reductions at each school along with other cuts will balance the 2014 budget and allow for eight furlough days, one fewer than last year. Board members are expected to be presented with the proposed budget June 11 for approval, he said.

Padgett said he cannot picture himself approving a budget that does not propose contracting noncertified employees out to private companies. He said the cost of providing them health insurance is more expensive than some of the salaries, which is not logical to continue.

Padgett lamented several costs that he said made the budget process more difficult. In February, the school system had to pay a $241,000 fine to the Teachers Retirement System of Georgia for an oversight that resulted in seven retirees working more hours over a four-year period than allowed under state law. He also said the board’s approval in May to purchase a $78,000 Gallup Inc. hiring assessment tool was a luxury that could have been postponed.

Board member Frank Dolan said the crisis has to do with less local money flowing into the system. Richmond County had an $845,500 decrease in the amount of education sales tax collected in the past 10 months.

“Augusta’s economy is shrinking, it’s not growing,” Dolan said. “They can spout as much as they want about how great everything is. This is not that great. If we don’t get more business in this community – I don’t mean call centers that pay $15 or $20 an hour jobs. I’m talking big things like a Firestone plant.”

No matter how the budget gets balanced, Spires said the economic situation is evolving into a permanent state. State legislators have said austerity cuts might not go away anytime soon.

“This is going to be the new normal,” Spires said. “We’re trying to cut everything we can think of to cut, but there’s nothing left to cut.”

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