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Proposed budget irks some teachers, residents

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Susan Taylor said she spends about $3,000 each year getting her elementary school classroom ready to teach subjects like English and math. She said she is concerned a proposal not to boost teachers' salaries will hurt her ability to continue that practice.

The Clayton County school system is planning to cut the local supplement for teachers eligible for a state-funded salary increase, thus, next year, they will receive the same salary they earned during the 2008-2009 school year - even though they will be at a higher step on the state pay scale, according to school system Budget and Grants Director Ramona Thurman.

Approximately 150 teachers and local residents showed up at the school system's central office Monday evening to vent their frustrations over the plan during two public hearings, one on teacher salaries, and another on the district's proposed $574.7 million fiscal year 2010 budget.

"I spend $3,000 a year on my classroom, and I don't want you to take that away," Taylor told school board members.

School system officials repeatedly have said they must cut the size of the budget to address a $16 million decrease in state funding. The decrease is in response to more than 3,000 students leaving the school system during its recent accreditation crisis.

The school board has postponed a vote on the budget until June 29, because of other meetings, said school board Vice-Chairperson Ophelia Burroughs, who presided over the hearings.

During the hearing on the teachers' salaries, Thurman said the move was in response to several teachers calling board members and offering to forego a promised one-percent pay raise.

Some teachers said those callers did not represent their interests.

"This is disrespectful to the teachers," said elementary school teacher Anne Fitzgerald. "We are the ones who have stood beside this school system in the tough times. Mrs. Thurman said several teachers called board members offering to forego their salary increases. Well, those teachers don't speak for me," Fitzgerald said.

Burroughs said she is sympathetic, as a retired Clayton educator, but said the school system is in the position of having to make tough choices.

"If you don't have enough money, how in the world are you going to give people a salary increase," Burroughs said.

Issues with planned spending

Some teachers and residents also expressed concern over departmental budgets proposed for the next fiscal year. Some departments will realize more money next year, yet others, tied directly to academics, will see cuts as part of the proposed budget.

For example, the Textbook Department will receive less funding under the proposed budget (proposed $2.551 million, a decrease of $1.433 million); as will the Research and Development Department (proposed $1.203 million, a decrease of $712,840), the Special Education Department (proposed $3.057 million, a decrease of $306,929), and the Remediation Department (proposed $2 million, a decrease of $245,364).

Thurman said in a written statement that several of the budgets, such as Textbooks and Remediation, are seeing cuts because fewer materials will be needed for the 2009-2010 school year. She said fewer new textbook editions need to be adopted in the coming school year, than in the previous one. She also said there were a number of first-time start-up costs in the Research and Development Department's fiscal year 2009 budget, to pay for assessments and consultant fees. She said some positions in the department also have been cut.

Elsewhere, several departments will see increases, including the school board and the district's Legal Department. The school board's budget will more than double in size, to $83,739 (an increase of $45,043), because of board member training expenses and the implementation of the Georgia School Board Association's e-Board paperless meeting system, Thurman said. The Legal Department's budget will be $367,000 (an increase of $41,205), even as the school system did away with its in-house legal counsel in March. Since then, the district has been using outside law firms - Marietta-based Brock, Clay, Calhoun and Rogers, and the Jonesboro-based Fincher, Denmark and Williams, LLC.

The increase in the Legal Department's budget is to accommodate the "need to retain outside legal counsel," Thurman said.

As teachers reviewed the budget, some argued they were being treated unfairly since they are not getting salary increases, while some departments are increasing expenditures.

"If I have to do it to save someone's job, I'll do it, but everybody should have to do it as well," said first-grade teacher Natasha Clark.

Proposed millage rate also a concern

Another hearing on the budget was held earlier in the day, but few teachers attended that session. During the morning hearing, a handful of residents told board members they oppose a proposed millage rate increase, from 19.836 mills to 20 mills, the maximum rate allowed.

One mill equals $1 for every $1,000 of taxable value of a property.

"Any type of tax increase is not acceptable," said Jonesboro resident Moses King, a firefighter in Atlanta. "There are furloughs, cutbacks and layoffs that you could do. Cities are doing it, you should consider it too."

Thurman said the proposed increase in the millage rate would be necessary to keep local tax revenue at the same level it has been at during the current fiscal year.

"Due to the decrease in the tax digest, raising the rate to the [maximum] of 20 mills would generate [approximately] $150 million, an amount equivalent to the current local tax revenue," Thurman said.

Clayton County Tax Commissioner Terry Baskin said home values have gone down in the county, though he could not specify how much of a decline has occurred. Monday was the last day for the tax office to hear appeals on tax assessments, Baskin said, so an exact figure may not be available until later this week.