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School officials expect $23 million drop in state funding

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Officials with the Clayton County school system expect students and state funding will continue to drop at an unpredictable rate through 2010, as the district continues to reel from the loss of accreditation.

On Monday, district officials told the board of education the school system will loose $23 million in state funding for the 2009-2010 school year. Two-thirds of the lost funds will be the result of 3,224 students and 565 employees leaving for other school systems.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, we have lost 3,224 students, that is a direct impact of our SACS [Southern Association of Colleges and Schools] accreditation issues," said Larry O'Conner, chief of human resources for the district.

As a result of the anticipated loss in state funding, the school board is being asked to consider several cost-cutting measures, ranging from reducing overtime payments, travel budgets and part-time employee benefits, to decreasing the number of people employed by the school system. A decision is expected to be made at the Dec. 8 business meeting.

The school system's recommendations to the board include:

· Change the work year for 12-month, administrative employees.

· Decrease the number of individuals employed by the district.

· Reduce overtime payments.

· Reduce travel budgets.

· Reduce benefits for part-time employees.

· Gain savings from more-efficient transportation and maintenance operations.

State funding for school systems has already been dropping over the years, because of a series of austerity cuts. Clayton County schools has seen $57.2 million in state austerity cuts since 2002. More cuts seem likely in the future as Gov. Sonny Perdue has asked state departments to make their own budget cuts to deal with a faultering economy.

The school system anticipates another $6 million in austerity cuts next year, said Chief Financial Officer Roger Reese.

However, the system will see its biggest hit next year in the anticipated $16.3 million lost in Full-Time Equivelancy (FTE) funding. FTE funds are provided to school systems based on an equation where six students equal one FTE unit.

However, the FTE counts are conducted twice a year, in October and March, to get a full understanding of a school system's enrollment. Both counts are used to determine FTE funding for the next school year, but in most school systems, the counts are traditionally lower in the spring than in the fall, said Reese.

Of course, the district also will have less of a need for resources with fewer students. The student enrollment losses equate to 364 classrooms. "There will be some cuts that have to be made from a financial perspective," said Reese. "However, if the FTE count goes down, then that means you don't need as many resources."

Through the spring, and into the summer, parents' fears about a loss of accreditation led to about 2,000 students being withdrawn before the current school year began. Another exodus began after Aug. 28, when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) announced the accreditation loss.

Among the reasons for the fears were the perception that Clayton County graduates would not be able to get into college, or they would not be able to transfer their credits to another district.

In fact, the largest drops were at the high school level, where the FTE count revealed a drop of 1,735 students, which is close to the total enrollment of some Clayton County high schools. Middle Schools lost 648 students, and elementary schools lost 841 students.

But, district officials do not believe they have hit the bottom of the enrollment drop. Before the meeting, Deputy Superintendent Judith Simmons said there are rumblings that more students will leave the school system at the end of the fall semester, which ends in December. But the district is hopeful student enrollment will stabilize.

Reese later told board members the amount of money lost because of student flight "is likely to increase as we get more information."

Not all parents are leaving the school system during the accreditation crisis, though. Yolanda McCrory, the Parent-Teacher Student Association president for North Clayton Middle School, whose son is a seventh-grader at the school, said, although the dollar figure announced by the school system is shocking, she expected it to be higher. "From what I kept hearing, I thought we'd lost more students," she said.

McCrory is one of the parents who choose to stay and fight for the school system, but her loyalty could waver if the district does not regain its accreditation by Sept. 1, 2009.

If the district does not regain the accreditation by then, it can take two or more years to get it back. "I'd be very torn," McCrory said. "On the one hand, I'm very loyal to the community, but my son would be in the eighth grade next year, and I'm concerned that could stay on his transcript for awhile."

Still, McCrory said there is a positive that has come out of the accreditation crisis. "It used to be that we couldn't get parents to come to PTA meetings, now the meetings are so packed, we have people standing along the walls," McCrory said. "We were sent a signal and I think we definitely got the message."