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'Bare bones' budget
proposed for schools

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

The decrease in state funding for Clayton County Public Schools will not be as high as initially projected, but school leaders say they will be thrifty in spending for the 2010 fiscal year.

Officials say some cuts remain likely, and some programs could disappear as the district works on a proposed, overall budget that is not too different from the current $612 million overall-operating budget for the 48,000-student school district.

School Board Chairperson Alieka Anderson said the board will review the proposed budget to make the best possible decisions for the district, but she declined to comment on specifics until the board has voted on the spending plan.

"There are going to be some tough decisions that we're going to have to make," she said. "We're going to have to read over the budget very carefully."

Director of Budgets and Grants Ramona Thurman said Monday that the total amount of the 2010 budget is not yet available, because the size of some grants has not been finalized. Thurman did say there will be a $19.7 million decrease in state funding because of state austerity cuts and a loss of more than 3,000 students, according to figure she received from the Georgia Department of Education two weeks ago.

That number, however, is down from the $23 million projected last fall.

"We're doing as well as some of the other districts in the area, but I know of some schools systems that are worse off than we are," Thurman said.

In the proposed budget, she said, only two new positions will be created, while two others will be merged into one. One of the new positions will a coordinator of student support, which will require the system to pay $104,588 per year in salary and benefits. An administrative assistant position will be created as well, with salary and benefits totaling $42,727. This position will be created to oversee student safety in the schools, Interim Superintendent Valya Lee told board members.

Lee said she also is planning to ask the board to merge the jobs of the director of position control and the director of internal audits.

"There's nothing extra, except those positions," Thurman said. "Most of our budget goes for direct instruction and salaries. If we have to cut, then we're going to cut, but it's a bare bones budget already. I don't see much more we can do."

Taking a hit

Graduation coaches, and the $100 gift cards that had been given to more than 3,000 classroom teachers in the past, were not included in the proposed budget. Thurman said they were state programs, and funding for them was eliminated at the state level.

Clayton has 22 middle and high school graduation coaches, District Spokesman John Lyles said. They are responsible for making sure students stay on track to graduate with their classmates.

Lyles said the district may eliminate the graduation-coach positions, if the board chooses not to fund them. However, he said the graduation coaches are, in some cases, also guidance counselors, and may be retained as a result.

The size of the budget

Thurman said her office projects that the school system will begin the next fiscal year, in July, with a $40 million general fund balance. She also said the system anticipates spending $408 million through its general fund, while receiving $388.3 million in revenue. That would leave the general fund with a balance of $20.3 million at the end of Fiscal Year 2010, she said.

The general fund covers salaries, textbooks and school supplies. It is the largest of the five funds that make up the overall budget. The other funds are the Special Revenues Fund, the Capital Projects Fund, the Enterprise Fund, and the Fiduciary Fund.

Thurman said the school system has traditionally preferred to have a general fund balance equivalent to one month of operating expenses at the end of each fiscal year. This year, it costs the school system an average of $35 million per month to operate.

Regaining accreditation, a revenue boost

Last year, former Superintendent John Thompson, and other district officials, attributed the drop in students to the school system's loss of accreditation. In August 2008, Clayton County became the first school system since 1969 to lose its accreditation, when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools determined the school board was too "dysfunctional."

The accrediting agency sent a review team to the county last week to evaluate progress made since the loss of accreditation. Within the next month, the AdvancED Accreditation Commission will make a decision whether to restore Clayton's accreditation.

On Monday, the district released a statement in which Lee said she and other district officials "feel good" about the school system's chances of regaining accreditation.

"We believe that we have done everything we possibly can to affect the restoration of the district's accreditation," she said in the written statement. "We targeted our work to address the language of the August, 28 [2008] SACS report, using a rubric designed in close collaboration with the accrediting agency ... [W]e are filled with cautious optimism as we await the report."

Thurman said regaining accreditation could still have an impact on the Fiscal Year 2010 budget. If students come back, more state money could be allocated to the school system through a mid-year adjustment, she said.