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BOE candidates talk about budget at forum

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

As the Clayton County Board of Education grapples with deep funding cuts, candidates campaigning for seats on the board have given their opinions on how to best make those cuts.

During a forum hosted by the Clayton County NAACP chapter on Tuesday, some challengers said those at the highest levels of the school system are not shouldering enough of the budget cuts' burden. Incumbents countered that they have done their best to minimize the effects of the cuts on the classroom.

Last week, the school board tentatively adopted a $509 million fiscal year 2011 budget. It encompasses about $40 million in cuts. To start, the cuts include eliminating positions on Superintendent Edmond Heatley's cabinet, getting rid of home-to-school transportation to school-choice institutions, cutting elementary school summer school, and middle school summer remediation, and shortening the school year by five days.

In addition, the cuts also include getting rid of hundreds of school improvement specialists, academic coaches, coordinators, media paraprofessionals, media specialists, and school nurses.

"They've decided to cut things in the wrong direction," said District 1 Candidate and New Macedonia Baptist Church preacher, Rev. Richard Jones. "The teachers and staff working with my kids are the last ones who should be cut."

The incumbent District 1 board member, Pamela Adamson, whom Jones wants to replace, countered with: "We've tried to cut in places that would not directly affect the classroom."

The forum drew almost every candidate seeking a spot on the school board. School board Chairperson Alieka Anderson, who is running unopposed in District 8, and Grandvial Quick, one of the District 9 candidates, were the only candidates who did not attend the forum.

In addition to District 1 candidates Adamson and Jones, the other attending candidates were (in District 4) incumbent School Board Member Michael King, National Education Association Student Program Chairman R. Jermaine Coleman, and Lovett School Breakthrough Atlanta program Eighth-grade Teacher Xavier O. Ross; and (in District 9), incumbent School Board Member Charlton Bivins, and Housing Authority of Clayton County Chairman James Searcy.

The issue of school finances has become a hot-button topic in the education community, particularly as declining state revenues has forced Georgia's lawmakers to cut back spending, including funding for education. That, in turn, has helped contribute to massive budget cuts, including staff layoffs and talk of school closures, in school district's throughout the state.

Ross said the high salaries of some district employees, such as Heatley, should have been among the first cuts. Heatley's contract gave him a base, annual salary of $250,000, although his work year has since been cut by two weeks, under the budget cuts.

"If we start trimming at the $250,000, and $190,000 salaries, then we won't need to let some of our other employees go," Ross maintained.

Similarly, Coleman pointed to the district's central office as a prime place to begin cuts. "Sacrificing doesn't mean you need to give up quality," he said. "Start cutting at the top. Sacrificing begins with the leadership, and then, we work our way down from there."

Candidate Searcy, however, said cutting expenses in the district requires the school board members to put more thought into how they handle the district's finances. "We must be much smarter about how we make these cuts," Searcy said.

But, like Adamson, incumbent school board members, Bivins and King, argued that when it comes to the school system's fiscal year 2011 budget, they have done the best they could with the limited resources they expect to have.

"The money is just not there," King said.

"We tried to stay out of the classroom, so that's why we cut back in areas like maintenance and transportation," Bivins said.