Richmond County schools face extra $6.5 million in cuts

The Richmond County school board gambled and lost.

Last week, the board voted against raising taxes slightly more than $8 for a $100,000 house, sticking Superintendent Dana Bedden with a $1.1 million shortfall and gambling that state funding wouldn't continue to be slashed as tax revenues plummet.

On Tuesday the board came up snake eyes.

Gov. Sonny Perdue dealt the school system an estimated $6.5 million in cuts, part of a larger plan for offsetting a $900 million drop in state revenue.

The school system -- already facing the possibility of furloughs and layoffs -- must now dig even deeper to offset the lost revenue.

Raising taxes is no longer on the table.

Bert Brantley, Mr. Perdue's spokesman, said 3 percent will be cut from the state education funding formula and school systems will be cut the equivalent of three furlough days for all state-funded positions.

Mr. Brantley said the governor doesn't have the legal authority to mandate educator furloughs, but school boards are having their funding reduced the equivalent of those furlough days.

Higher education was cut 5 percent, as were most other state budgets, Mr. Brantley said. All of the cuts bring Georgia's budget back to 2005 levels, although the state's population has grown by 1 million people since then.

When Dr. Bedden was asked how he would absorb the cuts, he shrugged his shoulders.

Faced with only a $1 million shortfall last week, the superintendent said he would rely on a "combination of things to spread the pain," including layoffs, furloughs and charging fees for services.

School board President Marion Barnes said that, in his combined 48 years as an educator and board member, these are the worst financial times he has experienced.

"We're going to have to go back to the drawing board," Mr. Barnes said. "Hopefully, we won't have to eliminate any employees."

One school position, however, is safe. The board unanimously approved spending $120,000 to extend its contract with Voss & Associates, the public relations firm that provides a public information officer to the school system.

Shortly after Dr. Bedden updated the board on the latest budget shortfall, the board approved extending the contract.

"I've always looked at an information person as a necessity," Mr. Barnes said. "I'm hoping they can help us sell what we're doing."

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