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BOE approves $574.1 million budget

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Clayton County Public Schools will operate under a $574.1 million budget in fiscal year 2010, but district officials and members of the school board said they will spend the next year tweaking the plan in an effort to cut spending.

On Monday, the Clayton County Board of Education approved the new budget, which goes into effect Wednesday, by a 7-1 vote. Board member Michael King was the lone dissenting voice.

The board also voted 5-3 in favor of raising the school system's millage rate, from 19.836 mills, to the maximum 20 mills allowed under state law. King, school board Chairperson Alieka Anderson, and board member Pamela Adamson voted against the millage rate increase.

Board member Charlton Bivins did not attend the meeting.

The budget is largely the same one presented to the public in early June. During and after the meeting on Monday, board members said they will be working with incoming Superintendent Edmond Heatley to find ways to reduce spending in the new fiscal year. Heatley begins leading the district on Wednesday.

"With conversations with the incoming superintendent, we will be looking at the budget in the coming months with the intention of finding ways to reduce spending," Adamson said before the board voted on the budget.

"In January [2010], we're going to review it with Dr. Heatley," Anderson said. "At this time, we have voted on it, and we have accepted it ... We're still looking at it. We've got 3,500 students who may come back into the district."

The school system has spent months working to reduce spending in the upcoming fiscal year to address a $16 million reduction in state funding, which is largely due to a 3,500-student population decrease during the 2008-2009 school year.

Among the steps taken already was a reduction in force that eliminated 14 district-wide positions, mainly in the school system's central office, as well as 109 paraprofessionals and six school-level secretaries. The district has also reduced its local supplement to teacher salaries for the upcoming school year so they will receive state salary step increases but continue to make the same salary they earned during the 2008-2009 school year.

Although she declined to discuss specifics, Anderson said board members and the incoming superintendent have already come up with ways to reduce spending in the future.

"I can't say right now what they are, but we are looking at several ways to reduce spending," Anderson said.

In addition to approving a new spending plan, the board also approved maxing out the school system's millage rate to retain some of the money that it would have lost if it continued to collect at a 19.836-mill rate while property values decreased.

School system Budgets and Grants Director Ramona Thurman said that in order to raise the same amount of money from the local tax digest as was collected in fiscal year 2009, the district would have to raise the millage rate to 20.488 mills. This is because lower property values in the county have led to a $265 million decrease in the tax digest, Thurman said.

Thurman said property owners, in terms of the school system's portion of the tax bill, would pay about the same since the revenue-neutral level would require a millage rate higher than the maximum allowed under state law.

If the school board did not raise the millage rate, it would have received $3 million less in property taxes for the upcoming fiscal year, Thurman said. She added that if the tax digest does not improve during the new fiscal year, the district will have to look at alternatives to make up the difference.

"If the tax digest continues to decrease, we're are going to probably look at deeper spending cuts, or dipping further into our reserves, or probably going to the state Legislature, and a voter referendum to increase the maximum millage rate," Thurman said.