The Fayette Citizen-News Page

Wednesday, February 4, 2004

School budget crunch ‘It’s not going to be an easy year’


Fayette County schools are regarded as the state’s best and keep getting better, members of the Board of Education and community were told Saturday.

But the cost to build and sustain a school district held up as the model for the rest of Georgia is high, especially with the state’s share of education funding continuing to fall and local property taxes near their legal limit. Another five-year facilities expansion plan that would require voter approval is also knocking on the door.

While there was much to celebrate at the board’s annual planning workshop Saturday, the reality of how much it costs to achieve such heights wasn’t lost on anyone, most especially Finance Director James Stephens.

“I ask you for your support and patience,” Stephens said to the board when it came his turn to speak.

“It’s not going to be an easy year.”

Stephens got word Friday that the state estimates it will cost Fayette $2.1 million to fund Gov. Sonny Perdue’s proposed 2-percent pay raise for all teachers. But the actual cost to the county will be nearly twice that, at $3.8 million, if Perdue’s raise passes, because Fayette has many more teachers and certified personnel than the state provides funding for.

Since 2002, the state has slashed $5.5 million from its share of instructional revenue to Fayette County, Stephens said. Over seven years, the district has been shortchanged more than $12 million.

Figuring in austerity adjustments, reductions in capital growth spending and various cuts in services, Stephens said Fayette receives $17 million less from the state than it did just five years ago, or about 10 percent of the 2004 budget.

Reaching consensus last year on that $148 million operations budget , about $7 million more than in 2003, was a piece of cake compared to what lies ahead, Stephens suggested.

“We will need to look at everything we do, from top to bottom, systemwide, from materials to bus transportation to our facilities,” said Stephens.

He stopped short of using the “L” word: Layoffs.

“So far we’ve managed to make it through without any reductions in staff,” he reminded superintendents, division directors and program coordinators gathered for the session.

“We hope to maintain that, but the truth is, we just don’t know.”

Board members took the grim news with a degree of optimism.

Board member Lee Wright asked if it were too early to ask school system personnel for ideas on ways to cut costs; Stephens said budgets from department heads were due in to his office on Feb. 18, and principals had a deadline of Feb. 25.

Board member Greg Powers did some math and asked Stephens if the budget anticipated for 2005, coupled with pay raises and further cuts from the state, wouldn’t equal about a 1-mill tax increase, or about $3.2 million in Fayette County.

“Yes, it would,” said Stephens, adding, “That’s why I’m advising you to take caution in how you approach a bond this fall.”

Because of time constraints, the board only briefly touched on the next five-year construction plan still in its draft stage, but heard Facilities Services Director Mike Satterfield propose a new middle school and three elementary schools, as well as a 12-classrooom addition to Rising Starr Middle and a host of renovations and improvements to several other campuses.

The cost of the projects and value of the bond voters would be asked to approve in November was not discussed, but the request would probably fall within range of the $65 million sought in 2000. Whitewater High School, which opens in August, is the final project approved by voters with that bond.

Still, Stephens conceded that things could be a lot worse. Fayette County ranks among the wealthiest of Georgia’s counties, and just a fraction of an increase in the millage can bring in more than $1 million in revenue. Last year’s tax digest jumped by 8 percent, a welcome surprise, and Tax Commissioner George Wingo has told Stephens that a 5 percent growth rate can be expected.

Compare that to the city of Pelham, south of Albany, where a single mill of taxation brings in just $32,500, according to the state.

Meeting in a similar retreat on Friday, Coweta’s Board of Education was told it would have to slash its budget by nearly $10 million, and agreed to increase classroom sizes; shut down the night high school; replace each high school teacher’s planning period with another 45-minute class; delay buying new textbooks; and postpone the hiring of a new top administrator.

Stephens said the first budget workshop would come at the March board meeting.

“A tight system is better than a loose system,” said Stephens. “We take our role very seriously.”