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BOE narrowly approves budget-reduction plan

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Clayton County Public Schools Superintendent Edmond Heatley's plan to reduce the district's expenses by $84 million over the next two years was approved -- in a close vote -- by the county's board of education on Tuesday.

But, just before the votes were cast, parents from one charter school made a public plea to save transportation to their school.

Heatley's plan was approved by a 5-2-1 vote, with board members Trinia Garrett and Jessie Goree voting against the plan, while fellow board member Michael King abstained. Another board member, Charlton Bivins, was not at the meeting.

Heatley's plan to cut expenditures includes reductions of $8.26 million in "building-level savings;" $4.99 million in the teaching and learning division; $3.08 million in the human resources division; $3.02 million in the operations division; $681,417 for the superintendent and the school board, and $148,030 in the business services division.

The district is facing a $119 million budget deficit by July 2012, if cuts are not made, Heatley said.

Some of Heatley's specific reduction proposals include: Cutting the salaries of school board members by 4.25 percent; shortening the school year by five days; eliminating three superintendent's cabinet positions; replacing registered and licensed practitioner nurses with "health care professionals;" eliminating 30 school improvement specialist positions; eliminating elementary summer school and middle school Criterion-Referenced Competency Test remediation; reducing the work year for employees, and eliminating 52 media paraprofessional positions in the elementary and middle schools.

It is also Heatley's recommendation that the school system stop picking up students who attend schools of choice, magnet and charter schools from their homes or local bus stops, a measure that had parents and students from the Forest Park-based Unidos Dual Language Charter School pleading before the board.

"Unidos needs buses," said fourth-grader Dakota Lynch. The youth then pointedly asked Heatley, "Don't you want us to go to Unidos? Do you really care about us?"

Heatley's budget-reduction plan is just the build-up to the presentation of the proposed fiscal year 2011 budget, which the superintendent reminded school board members they are scheduled to take a first vote on, next month. Under state law, the school board must have a new budget approved by June 30.

School Board Chairperson Alieka Anderson stressed that the board's approval of the reduction plan does mean its recommendations are set in stone for the fiscal year 2011 budget. Board members can still set reject any of the recommendations during the approval of the budget, she said.

According to Heatley's plan, the elimination of transportation for school-choice students, which includes transportation for Unidos students, would save the district $1.81 million per year. The transportation would not be totally eliminated, however. There would be a shuttle bus that takes students from Tara Stadium to their respective schools. It would be up to the parents to get their children to the stadium, Heatley said. "You have a responsibility to get your children to school," he said. "The school system can not be all things, to all people."

But, Unidos parent Sasha McCrear, a resident of Riverdale, said driving her daughter, a kindergartner at Unidos, to Tara Stadium would be an inconvenience for her family. "That's actually the opposite direction from the school," the mother said.

Board member Goree said she would not support the plan until she got a legal opinion from school board attorney Glenn Brock on whether the Unidos charter mandates that the school district provide transportation for the school's students. King, the board member who abstained from the vote, said he wanted to know how many students would be affected by the change before he would vote either way on the matter.

McCrear and Unidos School Council President Lorraine Lynch (Dakota Lynch's mother) said they feared the change in transportation -- in which students would no longer be picked up from their homes -- would eventually kill the school.

Heatley said that he is not trying to kill Unidos, however. "I made a recommendation to eliminate transportation to the program, not the program itself," he said.

Lorraine Lynch said a survey the school recently conducted of the parents of Unidos' 420 students revealed that one-third of the families would not have transportation to get their children to Tara Stadium. "It's not outright killing the program, but it will still have the same effect," she said.

The school council president said the council will discuss the issue, and any possible ways to address it, at the next council meeting, which will be held on April 19. For now, the council is asking the school board to, at least, establish shuttle bus sites in quadrants across the county, she said.

The transportation issue does not just affect Unidos, however. Transportation for the Elite Scholars Academy Charter School, the math and science theme program at Rex Mill Middle School, the Fines Arts Magnet High School, the Open Campus High School and the Alternative School would also be effected by Heatley's plan.