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School employees, parents criticize budget cuts

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Clayton County Public Schools bus drivers, media specialists, and parents told members of the Board of Education on Monday evening that the quality of education offered to the county's students will decline, if the school system implements $85.2 million in proposed budget cuts.

School Superintendent Edmond Heatley's recommended cuts include the elimination of media secretary positions; employee benefits for part-time employees, including bus drivers; and transportation to, and from, charter, theme and magnet schools. The cuts would be made over a two-year period.

Among the calls from public speakers to reconsider proposed cuts, was one for school board members to "stand up for the children," and take a paycut themselves.

"The money that you spend is my tax dollars," said Morrow grandparent, Searless Hathaway. "Since we're cutting across the board, how about the board cutting its own salaries."

The school board is scheduled to receive a rough draft of the school system's fiscal year 2011 budget later this month, and is scheduled to vote on it in May. Last month, Heatley told the board that deep cuts were necessary to offset a budget deficit that is projected to reach $103.5 million by July 2012.

As part of the planned cuts, part-time employees, including bus drivers, will lose their employee benefits, beginning in the fall. That is projected to save $1.5 million per year, according to Heatley's presentation.

Fifty-two media paraprofessionals, who assist media specialists in the operations of school media centers, would also see their positions cut. That is expected to save $1.3 million per year. There were approximately 30 media specialists, and 30 school bus drivers, in the audience at the meeting on Monday.

Kilpatrick Elementary School Media Specialist Kathyrn Sorrell told board members that media paraprofessionals are like an extension of herself, and other media specialists across the school system. The paraprofessionals, she said, help out around a school's media center by providing an extra set of hands to keep things running. "How will we be able to help one student, when 20 more are waiting in line to check out books?" Sorrell said.

School bus driver, James Ojeda, said drivers contribute to the school system by implementing reading programs on their buses, to get students to read more books. He added, however, that many bus drivers rely on the employee benefits they receive from the school system, and might be forced to leave the district, if those benefits are cut.

"Don't do anything to force our good-minded drivers to leave the district to seek employment elsewhere," Ojeda said. "We beg you when going into the budget to consider us bus drivers when you make these budget cuts."

Another transportation-related issue mentioned was a proposal to eliminate transportation to special schools in the district, including the Fine Arts Magnet School; the district's alternative school; the Elite Scholars Academy Charter School, and the Unidos Dual Language Charter School. That move is projected to save $1.8 million.

"The decision to do away with transportation to these schools goes against stated goals of the board of education of providing Clayton County students with every tool necessary to learn," said Byron Bernard, a parent of a student at the Unidos Dual Language Charter School, in Forest Park. "These schools could be shut down, due to a lack of enrollment, because a majority of the students wouldn't have a way to get to school ... What kind of a message do you think that sends to our children?"

Rex resident, Larry O'Keeffe, who is also on the school board's ethics commission, later called on school board members to scrutinize every purchase they are asked to make in the future, to make sure it will be in the best financial interests of the school system.

O'Keeffe's son, David, is a special needs school bus driver for the system. "There are many things that would be nice to have, but you have to make sacrifices," O'Keeffe said.

School Board Chairperson Alieka Anderson said she was not sure how much savings would be gained by cutting the salaries for school board members, however. She said board members make $1,000 per month, before taxes. "I think it's a great idea, although, I would need to find out the consensus of the board on this," she said. "We know we're in a budget crisis, but we want the public to work with us."

She said the board is already making sacrifices, however. It is sending only one of its members to a National School Boards Association conference in Chicago this year, in an effort to cut back on expenses. Anderson said the savings is $2,300 per school board member, which comes out to be a total of $18,400 for eight members.

"We've done something to cut back already," she said. "We have contributed to these budget cuts."