Originally created 05/26/98

Trustees to meet, vote on budget



Richmond County school trustees meet Wednesday to begin voting on sections of the $176.4 million proposed budget for 1998-99 -- a budget that, while providing raises for all employees, also cuts funding for many departments.

School officials are projecting an $8.1 million increase over last year's revenue -- all of which will be consumed by the 6.24 percent increase in salaries and benefits. Still, no tax hike is foreseen, officials said.

All school personnel will get raises next year -- between 6 and 10 percent for certified personnel and 4 percent for classified workers such as bus drivers and cafeteria employees. The raises, which were mandated this year by the state Legislature, will increase salary expenditures by $9.1 million.

Of the 48 departmental budgets, 31 will have less money than they did this year. Some of the decreases are due to one-time purchases that appeared in last year's budget and were unnecessary this year. Most, though, are due to system-wide cutbacks to get the budget balanced.

"There are things that it's nice to have, and some things that are necessary that you must have," said board president Adna Stein. "We have all the necessary things in the budget that we need, but we did cut out some of those nice things to have."

The areas receiving some of the largest cuts include transportation, from $2.5 million to $1.8 million; architect services, from $541,630 to $186,600; maintenance and operations, from $6.4 million to $5.6 million; staff development, from $267,588 to $130,683; and public safety, from $515,007 to $343,200.

Mr. Stein said most of the cuts were in the areas of purchasing supplies and providing employee travel.

"Teachers will not be able to get all the supplies they want, but they'll get what they need," he said.

As board members reviewed the budget proposals at two informational meetings last week, controller Gene Spires explained the justifications for each increase or decrease in each department. Often his explanation would be simply: "This department was cut due to budget constraints."

Trustee Cheri Foster, who chairs the finance committee, said she thinks despite decreased spending, the proposed budget is realistic. She said she was happy with the funding for instructional programs, which are the school system's top priority.

"I don't see anywhere in instructional areas that are being cut," she said.

Superintendent Charles Larke said putting the students first was the top priority in deciding where to trim.

"It was a very tough budget," he said, "but we were committed to the pay raises and wanted to accomplish that without a millage increase ... if we have a better than expected digest we might put some things back in that we had to cut.

"We couldn't honor all the requests from all the departments without a millage increase, so we had to make some tough decisions," he said.

Dr. Larke said if the money was available, he'd hire a curriculum director and ask for more funding for Fort Discovery and the Phinizy Swamp Project, an outdoor science classroom for all grades.

"There's a real need for some help in the area of science," he said. "I'm glad we were able to commit some dollars to both those, but I'd like to see more."

School officials are projecting that almost $114 million will come from state sources -- 64.6 percent of the proposed budget. Local taxes, an estimated $55.8 million, will provide 31.6 percent. The remainder of revenues will come from federal sources, carry-over from this year and other local sources. Local growth, anticipated to be 4.5 percent, should provide sufficient revenue to avoid a tax increase, Mr. Spires said.