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Clayton Schools projecting future budget deficits

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

By the end of the next fiscal year, in June 2011, Clayton County Public Schools may begin to run an end-of-year budget deficit, which could eventually grow to $37.3 million by June 2012, school system Director of Budgets and Grants Ramona Thurman said Monday.

During a mid-year budget projection presentation at the Clayton County Board of Education meeting, Thurman told board members that state funding cuts for the current fiscal year are going to reduce the anticipated fiscal year 2010 end-of-year balance by $11 million. As a result, Thurman said the school system is projecting the school system will have a balance of $12.9 million at the end of the 2010 fiscal year.

In fiscal year 2011, the ending balance is projected to be a deficit of $8 million, with that deficit projected to deepen during the following fiscal year, Thurman said. And, she said, that is if the school system cuts operating expenses by five percent in fiscal year 2011, and by another 10 percent in fiscal year 2012.

In order to address those projections now, Thurman said the district will need to "weed out" programs that are not working.

"We're going to have to sit down and review all of our programs, and services, and maybe even our employees, to see where we can cut expenses," Thurman said.

Thurman said the expected deficits come from budgeting to spend more than the school system is expecting to collect in revenue, a practice the school system has been engaging in for at least 10 years already. In the past however, the district has often underspent its budget and ended fiscal years with a surplus.

Even with reductions in operating costs built into the budget projections, deficit spending is still expected to continue during fiscal years 2011 and 2012, fueling the growth of projected end-of-year budget deficits year to year.

Thurman said all of the system's revenue sources, including local tax dollars, will need to be collected, and the district will have to underspend its budgets to curb the deficit. She said the district will eventually have to end the practice of deficit spending. "We can't continue as business as usual," she said.

Like other school systems and state agencies in Georgia, Clayton County Public Schools cut its fiscal year 2010 budget by three percent, and implemented three furlough days for teachers in August, at the request of Gov. Sonny Perdue.

Compounding Clayton County Schools' budget woes, however, was the fact that the district already had to adjust for lower state funding because 3,500 students left the district during the 2008-2009 school year after the school system's loss of accreditation.

The district has since seen an enrollment growth of more than 2,000 students since August, but state funding cannot be restored for those students until the spring, Thurman said.

The district also faces uncertainty about whether more state funding cuts will come in the future. "Who knows what's going to happen down at the Capitol when the Legislature reconvenes in January," Thurman.

School board member Mary Baker recommended legislators visit a school to see what takes place in classrooms. "They seem to think education is easy, so I think the legislators should take a field trip, and teach a class for a day, so they can see how easy it really is," Baker said.

Clayton County Public Schools Superintendent Edmond Heatley said the projections are "bleak," but they are being brought to the school board now so members are aware of what may be ahead. "It's bleak, but it's something we've got to discuss," he said.

School board member Pamela Adamson echoed Thurman's statements, saying the district would need to tighten its belt as it makes spending decisions in the future. "This is not a budget surplus, this is a deficit," Adamson said. "We've got to pinch every penny going forward ... We really should have been saving money already."

At the same time Clayton County Public Schools officials are projecting future end-of-year budget deficits, they are also planning to seek waivers from the Georgia Board of Education to increase class sizes by as many as three students, while spending less than state-mandated expenditure levels in the classrooms - an effort to offset lower state funding for the current school year.

Clayton County Schools Chief Human Resources Officer Douglas Hendrix said the school system would have to spend $830,761 to hire additional teachers if the waivers are not approved. The waivers would be for the current school year, and the 2010-2011 school year.

"Clayton county Public Schools has encountered substantial hardships as a result of the decline in state and local revenue, and the cuts to state QBE [Quality Basic Education] funds, and state grants," Hendrix said. "The allotment team is making every effort to balance the classrooms. However, there are certain instances where it is more economical for several classrooms to have one to three extra students, than to hire an additional teacher."

State Board of Education Member James Bostic, who was in the audience at the Clayton County Board of Education meeting on Monday, said Clayton County is not alone in its request. At least, 60 to 70 school districts are requesting those waivers. He said the state board of education asks that districts seeking such waivers do so for two-year intervals.

"That's because many school districts are already beginning to plan their budgets for next year," Bostic said. "We also don't expect the state funding to improve next year."