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School systems tightening economic belts

By Curt Yeomans and Johnny Jackson

cyeomans@news-daily.com

School officials in Clayton and Henry counties are cutting back on spending, leaving several positions unfilled, and may have to let teachers go, as the districts try to save money during a time of economic struggles.

Both school systems are waiting to see how state funding issues will work for Fiscal Year 2010, because the districts anticipate that funding cuts will come their way.

Clayton school officials expect a roughly $27 million decrease in state and local funding, while officials for Henry County Schools expect a roughly $10 million drop.

"We're just going to have to try to work through this," said Ray Hudalla, chairman of the Henry County Board of Education. "Depending on what happens with the economy, I think we're going to feel this for quite some time."

To meet the anticipated shortfalls, the districts are not filling several teaching and administrative vacancies, and they are taking other steps to save money.

Henry school officials implemented freezes on several of its departmental budgets, including its administrative offices, to deal with an expected $4.6 million shortfall for the current fiscal year, according to Jeff Allie, the district's assistant superintendent of financial services.

The budgetary pinch will likely be felt down to the individual classroom, he said. Administrators and teachers have been asked to help the system save by committing to simple, energy-efficient habits, such as turning off lights when they aren't in use, shutting their classroom doors and decreasing their thermostat settings in the winter.

Henry schools expected to suffer $2.1 million in state funding cuts during Fiscal Year 2009. The amount is presently $5.8 million, but Allie said he and other district officials are going to work on balancing the budget by June 30.

"Preliminary numbers from the state indicate we will lose another $900,000 in austerity reductions before the FY09 supplemental budget is approved during the current legislative session," Allie added.

Across the county line, Clayton County school leaders are dealing with several factors which will affect funding levels. In recent months, district officials have warned the Clayton Board of Education of an expected $5 million loss in local tax dollars, when car rental agencies at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport open a consolidated car rental facility in Fulton County in November.

District officials also anticipate a $6 million state austerity cut, and a $16.3 million reduction in state, Full-time Equivalency (FTE) funding created by a 3,000-student drop in enrollment. System leaders attribute the lower enrollment to the district's accreditation problems.

Clayton took several steps in January to address an anticipated drop in state funding, including reduced employee travel, and a global-positioning-tracking program was implemented to improve the efficiency of the district's transportation department.

But, the district now needs 153 teachers, and 102 other employees -- including assistant principals, middle school graduation coaches, and school counselors -- to retire, or take jobs in other school systems by April 5.

The vacancies will be needed because of the reduced state funding, the exodus of students, and state-mandated classroom size increases for the 2009-10 school year.

If the school system cannot meet their target number, the contracts of some uncertified teachers and educators, who have been in the district for less than four years, may not be renewed.

Superintendent John Thompson eliminated four administrative positions in the district's central office in the fall, including the superintendent's chief of staff and a second chief academic officer.

"All of our surrounding counties are hurting as well, because of budget cuts and increased class sizes," said Larry Conner, the chief of human resources for Clayton County Schools. "Ours is compounded by the loss of accreditation."

Conner said the goal of the district's efforts to reduce spending was to preserve as many teaching positions as possible.

Clayton County Board of Education Chairperson Alieka Anderson said the district will need as many teachers as possible next year, if school system officials are successful in regaining the district's accreditation later this spring. The system had 47,537 students enrolled as of Jan. 30, Conner told the school board on Thursday. A year ago, Clayton County had an enrollment of more than 51,000 students, he said.

"If we regain our accreditation, the kids are going to come back, and we're going to be able to use those teachers," Anderson said.

In Henry County, officials said no positions have been eliminated, but vacancies are going unfilled. More than two-thirds of the school system's art, music, and physical education teachers are funded locally, according to Hudalla. The system's instructional support teams are also funded locally.

"Anything that is not being funded by the state could be, and will be, looked at," Hudalla said. "In these times of austere budgets and cuts, we have to continue to look at whether we can continue to fund it."