Bedden braces for financial woes

Chris Thelen/Staff
Richmond County Schools Superintendent Dana Bedden is concerned that budget cuts may jeopardize educational gains made this year.

The Richmond County school board is a long way from talking about its budget for next fiscal year, but it is already starting off millions of dollars in the hole.

The board relied on one-time fixes, among other measures, to prop up its budget and offset a $13.4 million shortfall this fiscal year, actions it took to avoid layoffs and pay cuts.

Those actions patched the hole in the budget, but it set the board up for another rough year financially in 2009.

Richmond County Superintendent Dana Bedden said Tuesday that senior staff members were told in their last meeting before the holiday break to prepare two budgets: one assuming no additional funding and one assuming more cuts.

Cuts, though, might be likely.

To balance this year's budget, the board pulled $7.4 million out of its reserves, and it is trying to sell surplus properties to raise another $1.5 million.

But those one-time fixes mean the board will start its budget process with an $8.9 million shortfall if everything else remains unchanged.

This doesn't reflect $3.3 million withheld from the current budget by Gov. Sonny Perdue because of the state's budget woes.

It also doesn't reflect $3 million withheld by the governor from Homestead Tax Relief Grants.

On top of this, Richmond County enrollment dropped by 210 students this year, which means less state funding. The previous year, enrollment fell by 485 students, resulting in a loss of about $2.3 million in state funds.

Dr. Bedden said he and his staff are continuing to look for ways to ensure that the school system is running efficiently, including "rightsizing," the process of determining the best use of facilities.

Rightsizing, however, isn't a quick solution, he said. It's a process conducted in phases and implemented over years. The first phase calls for the closing of the Bungalow Road school and moving its alternative education programs to Tubman Middle School.

Financial pressure could force the board to speed up the process, Dr. Bedden said. A faster process could produce more immediate savings, but they would come at the expense of a process designed to be inclusive and data-driven.

Dr. Bedden is also looking for programs to trim, although personnel accounts for most of the budget.

"You talk about programs and services, but eventually you get to people," the superintendent said.

Finances could affect class sizes, he said. The board will be requesting class size waivers for 15 elementary classes during its January business meeting.

"That may be where we try to close the budgetary gap," Dr. Bedden said.

School officials have been working with members of the local legislative delegation to address funding problems.

State Rep. Quincy Murphy, chairman of the delegation, said he will push the General Assembly for flexibility in class-size restrictions.

"Hopefully, we can give them some relief in this area," he said.

But Mr. Murphy will also consider ways to reinstate the Homestead Tax Relief Grants.

The board made academic gains in 2008 and scored some successes, Dr. Bedden said, but funding issues could jeopardize this progress.

"If you keep going backward in funding, how do you sustain this?" he asked, comparing the gains and cuts to a yo-yo.

He wants to create special academies within schools, including a fine arts academy and a public safety academy, and also add more Advanced Placement courses, but the funding might not be there.

"Education costs," Dr. Bedden said.

But, he added, it costs more to incarcerate than it does to educate.

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

ABOUT THE SERIES

This story is the first in a series about what's ahead in the new year.

THURSDAY: Richmond County schools

FRIDAY: Savannah River Site

SATURDAY: Traffic

SUNDAY: Thurmond Lake -- drought

MONDAY: City government