School board faces tough financial calls

Faced with a $24.5 million shortfall, the Richmond County school board is considering a list of unpleasant options, including furloughs, but those cuts are just the beginning.

"This is going to be very difficult," Director of Finance and Accounting Anita Faglier said. "There is going to be a lot of pain."

The financial decisions are so tough that this is the first time in at least 23 years that the school board will be presented with an unbalanced budget, she said.

"It was such a large gap we need everybody to work together," Controller Gene Spires said.

Even last year when hit with a $13.4 million shortfall, a balanced budget was presented.

But Richmond County's student enrollment continues to fall, costs to operate the school system continue to climb and cuts to the state's education funding formula continue to mount.

The school board will meet Monday for its first hearing on the fiscal year 2010 budget.

School officials quietly trimmed $12 million from its expenses throughout the school year, primarily through energy-saving measures.

The $24.5 million shortfall was also whittled down to just under $18 million through several measures. For instance, increasing class sizes will enable the school system to cut 43 teaching positions, mostly through attrition, to account for $2.9 million in savings, the biggest reduction in the proposed budget.

Now the board is considering a list of options to save $10 million more, and the cuts would just be the beginning. Even if the board goes with all of the options, it would leave an $8 million gap.

Among the more significant options being considered are furloughs, the use of stimulus money, pay cuts, cutting custodian positions and layoffs.

The furloughs would apply to all employees, except bus drivers and 190-day certified employees, which includes teachers, counselors and media specialists.

State law requires 190-day certified employees to work that amount of time, and it's not practical to furlough bus drivers because they only work the length of the school year, 180 days.

Each furlough day would save $248,928, and the option given to the board is to mandate four.

About $3.2 million in stimulus funding could help plug the financial hole. Originally, officials didn't know this was permitted.

Another option is to cut the local supplement for 190-day certified staff by $750. This had been considered a year ago, but was dropped by the school board during budget hearings. School systems, such as Richmond County, attract teachers by using local revenue to pay above the state teacher pay scale. In Richmond County, the local supplement ranges from $2,350 to $3,550.

The school board could also cut 25.5 custodial positions. Fewer custodians will be needed with the purchase of automatic scrubbers, which make cleaning quicker.

A bright spot might be the school board's "rightsizing," the process it is going through to determine the best use of its facilities.

Next school year, the board will move pupils from Milledge Elementary to Lamar Elementary while a new Milledge is constructed, but the estimated $1.5 million saved in operation costs weren't factored into the budget because it was drafted before the board approved the school merger.

Those savings could help balance the budget and reduce the shortfall.

The school board's budgets have steadily become more difficult to balance in recent years.

"The state has passed on tremendous austerity reductions," Mrs. Faglier said. "Basically, they're taking money from us."

The state divvies up education funding primarily based on a formula. Unfortunately, it cannot fully fund the formula's allocations, so it must reduce the amount promised -- a so-called "austerity reduction." For fiscal year 2010, Richmond County's reduction will be $13.9 million. Since fiscal year 2003 the cumulative reductions will total nearly $52.6 million by next year.

"When you take and take and take, you reach a point when you have no where to give it up," Mrs. Faglier said.

The board's meeting will begin at 10 a.m. Monday. A final budget must be adopted by the end of June.

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

SCHOOL BUDGET OPTIONS

Some of the reductions being considered by the Richmond County school board could be offset or lessened by cutting general fund funding and using money from other sources. Here are some of the options and the potential savings to the general fund:

- Eliminating or reducing the extended program day at Murphey Middle School: $427,600

- Eliminating or reducing extended day at Collins Elementary School: $142,216

- Eliminating or reducing extended day or summer school at high schools: $279,155

- Eliminating or reducing the after-school program: $1,056,822

- Furlough all employees four days except 190-day certified staff and bus drivers: $995,712

- Reduce the local supplement for 190-day certified staff by $750: $1,987,080

- Cut 25.5 custodial positions because of the purchase of auto scrubbers: $454,950

Source: Richmond County Board of Education