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Clock ticking for public input on schools budget

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

The ball, which is Clayton County Public Schools' $612 million, fiscal year 2009 budget, has been thrown into the public's court.

The Board of Education voted unanimously to tentatively adopt the budget on Monday during its monthly business meeting. The next step is at least 10 days of public inspection, followed by two public hearings, which will be held on June 23 at 11:45 a.m., and 6:30 p.m., at the Clayton County Performing Arts Center, 2530 Mt. Zion Parkway, in Jonesboro.

The board will vote on final adoption on June 30, the last day they are allowed to do so under Georgia law.

Copies of the budget will be placed in every school and at every branch of the Clayton County library system, the district's Central Administration Complex, and on the school system's web site by June 13. The public hearings are the last opportunities available to the residents to tell the school system how to spend tax dollars during the next year.

"We believe, through the establishment of our Citizen Budget Committee, and through the steps we go through to make sure copies of the budget are easily available for review by the public, that we have demonstrated we do value -- extremely -- the public's input throughout the budget process," said Charles White, district spokesman.

There are two ways the community is able to provide input on the budget -- as members of the Citizen Budget Committee and through participation in public hearings.

The Citizen Budget Committee conducts meetings to discuss the budget before it is presented to the board. Each board member selects a resident from his or her district to sit on the committee and work with the district's budget officials during a five-month period.

"We actively seek a recommendation from the Citizen Budget Committee," White said. "We ask them for their opinion, and we pass that information along to the superintendent, so he can review the input."

Since the board has already reviewed the budget and tentatively adopted it, the only remaining avenue for public input is the hearings later this month.

Michelle Strong, board of education chairperson, said the board and the community can show officials from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) everyone is "engaged and dedicated on working together," if they take an active role in the remainder of the budget process. The district is facing a Sept. 1 deadline to meet nine mandates for improvement, or SACS will revoke the system's accreditation.

Last year, only one person spoke during the public hearings on the budget. Over the last 12 months, however, the accreditation crisis began, a controversial superintendent has been hired, and a policy revision has been introduced which would remove public comment from the board's regular business meetings. All of these factors could lead to more people speaking at the public hearings this year.

"I do not know if the participation level will be higher, but I encourage everyone who can, to come and give input, if they would like to," Strong said.

There are five sections of the budget, with the $418.5 million general fund comprising the largest piece of the pie. The money in the General Fund comes from property and most sales taxes, and it is used for salaries, textbooks, and academic programs.

Some of the items included in the general fund include a 2.5 percent cost of living increase for teachers ($9 million), and a 1.25 increase for non-teaching positions ($2.8 million); increased pay for teachers with at least 13 years of experience ($1.7 million); textbooks ($4.2 million); enhancements to the district's alternative school ($600,000), and hiring a chief operations officer ($154,371).

When the board voted to tentatively adopt the new budget earlier this week, it added an amendment to raise the minimum wage for all of the district's employees to $10.50 by April 1, 2009. This amendment will cost the district an additional $70,000.

The Capital Projects funds ($111 million); Special Revenue funds ($50.9 million); Enterprise funds ($27.9 million), and the Fiduciary funds ($4 million) make up remaining budget. The money in these funds come from grants and Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) dollars, but those funds are earmarked for specific purposes and cannot be used for the things that would be covered by the general fund.