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BOE trying to balance SACS, budget tasks

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

The shadow of the accreditation crisis hasn't distracted the Clayton County school board from it's budget process, but it could shape how board members approach the task.

Those close to the process say the crisis will affect how the board chooses to spend the district's money, and also could demonstrate what the board has learned from the accreditation issue.

The five remaining board members will have a chance to show the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) they can work together, and with the school system's administration in a professional manner.

One of SACS' concerns is the way board members treat the district's central office staff.

"It will show they are functioning as a board," said Larry O'Keeffe, a Morrow parent who also is a member of the school system's Citizen's Budget Committee.

Board member David Ashe said SACS' Feb. 15 report criticizing the board's ability to function will force members to be more conservative this year when it comes to spending.

Ashe said he expects the staff recommendations will carry weight this year, but he wouldn't say if it would be more weight than they had in the past.

"They know what they need," Ashe said. "We usually have to work out the little things. Most of the time that means dealing with the issue of pay. Everybody is going to want their own secretary, or more security at their buildings, but the people in the [district's] budget and finance office do a good job of dealing with that stuff before it gets to us."

O'Keeffe agreed.

"They need to treat staff members with dignity and professionalism... The department heads will come to the board with requests for their particular department, and the board will ask them to substantiate those needs. You can't have a situation where someone goes to the board, says 'I want this,' and the board goes 'OK, here you go.' There needs to be some stewardship of the tax dollars."

The school system's budget exceeds $500 million. How the board allocates its financial resources to keep the district running is one of the issues SACS will weigh in deciding whether the district has met all of the standards for keeping accreditation.

SACS has given Clayton nine mandates to meet by Sept. 1, or the district will lose accreditation. SACS officials revoked the district's accreditation because an investigation determined board members engaged in micromanagement, unethical behavior and misuse of district funds.

Observers believe, coming to an agreement on the budget by July 1, will be viewed favorably in the quest to regain trust locally, and by SACS.

The budget process is, at this point, well underway. The school system's Budget and Finance department spends three quarters of the year working on the budget.

The board approved a schedule for adopting a budget during a called meeting April 2. There will be budget meetings on April 28 and during the week of May 5. Budget adoption is tentatively set for June 2, and a public hearing will be held on June 23.

Board members will adopt the budget for a second time, per school system policy, on June 30. They will tentatively adopt a millage rate on the same night.

Officials from the Budget and Finance department have been working on the proposed budget with the assistance of a Citizen's Budget Committee.

The committee is composed of members of the community who participate in the budget process and offer input about what Clayton County residents are concerned about.

School system spokesman Charles White said the "heavy lifting" has already been done on the budget. Board members and district officials now have to do some "fine tuning." He also said the upcoming departure of Theresa McDugald, chief financial officer, who will leave next week to take a similar position with Fulton County schools, will not affect the budget approval process.

"We've made a substantial amount of progress in developing the budget," White said. "There's not a lot of heavy lifting left to do at this point."

Ashe said the departure of McDugald, whom the board trusts to make sound fiscal recommendations, will still be an obstacle the board has to overcome.

"She's the expert in these matters, we're not experts," he said. "We drove Theresa crazy sometimes, but she could manage us. Her goal was to always keep that one month surplus in the bank despite what pet projects we wanted money for."

Ashe also believes the work McDugald, and her staff members put into preparing the budget makes the board's job of approving the budget easier.

"It's a process and the staff has been working through this process for awhile," Ashe said. "We just have to study what we're doing, and not fall behind schedule."

There also is the issue of how many people will be left on the board when it takes it's final vote on the budget.

Chairperson Ericka Davis is stepping down this month, and Vice-Chairman Eddie White will take over as the board's leader.

However, Eddie White is resigning in mid-June. Board member Rod Johnson has announced his plans to resign, but won't say when he will step down.

The board declared board member Norreese Haynes' seat vacant in March, but the former District 8 representative has filed an injunction to stop a special election to replace him. He is awaiting a court date on his injunction.

The board may barely have enough members to hold a quorum when the final vote on the budget is scheduled to take place.

Other board members have said they are still mulling over the public's calls for entire board's resignation because of the SACS issue.

Ashe has no plans of stepping down, though, and is leaning towards running for re-election this year.

"If people resign right and left, it'll affect how we deal with the budget," he said. "At least three board members already won't be around when we take our final vote on the budget. It's unknown how many board members will be left at that time."

Overall, O'Keeffe and Ashe have "every confidence" in the board's ability to simultaneously deal with the budget approval process and the SACS issue at the same time.

"I know they can do it," O'Keeffe said. "It can be done and hopefully, it will be done."