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Heatley: Schools deficit may top $119 million

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Clayton County Public Schools Superintendent Edmond Heatley announced on Monday that the school system will not follow the lead of neighboring school districts by proposing school closures, and massive layoffs, but added that everyone in the district will share the pain of budget cuts.

That includes all nine members of the Clayton County Board of Education.

Heatley told school board members that the school system's expected deficit is continuing to grow as revenue sources shrink. If absolutely nothing is done to offset declining state and local revenues, he said, the district will be $119 million in the hole by the summer of 2012. A month and a half ago, he told school board members the deficit would only be $103.5 million.

To offset the deficit, Heatley is recommending $84 million in cuts to reduce expenses, including changes in services to save $13.8 million by: reducing the school year by five days; restructuring high school summer school; eliminating elementary summer school and middle school CRCT/Academic remediation; eliminating after-school remediation for elementary and middle schools; restructuring summer Georgia High School graduation test remediation; reducing travel and conference expenses; and becoming self-insured for automobiles and property.

Reuctions would also include reducing superintendent/ school board expenses $681,417 by eliminating three positions on the superintendent's cabinet and cutting the salaries of school board members by 4.3 percent.

The proposed cuts would also include firing the school board's parliamentarian; eliminating 30 school improvement specialists and 166 school-based instructional-coach positions, and firing 37 school nurses, so 63 cheaper, unlicensed "health care professionals" can be hired.

"When I said the pain is going to stretch over everybody, I meant everybody is going to have to feel the pain," said Heatley as he told school board members they, too, would have to make sacrifices.

The board is scheduled to take its initial vote on approving the budget at its April 13 business meeting. That starts the process of public inspection and comment on the proposed budget, culminating in the board's second, and final vote on adopting the budget in May.

The board room was mostly quiet as Heatley recommended cutting the salaries of school board members, until Board Member Jessie Goree asked Heatley, "Will the superintendent be taking a 4.3 percent cut as well?"

Heatley's response was that he had already taken a pay cut through a 10-day furlough that reduced his work year from 240 days, to 230 days. "I will do the same work, but get paid for only 230 days," he said.

Some of the proposed cuts include eliminating the school improvement specialist positions, and the school-based instructional coach positions, and moving the people currently in those positions into teaching positions. Heatley said the district will find other ways to improve student achievement, including turning to Clayton State University for help, or going to people already employed by the district.

Eliminating the school improvement specialist positions will save the district $1.06 million per year, while eliminating the instructional-coach positions will bring an annual savings of $1.08 million, Heatley said.

Another proposed cut is stopping the employment of registered nurses and licensed practical nurses, who provide medical treatment to elementary school students. Heatley said this will save the district $1.11 million per year, but that figure is offset by his plan to spend $991,675 a year to replace the nurses with "health care professionals" at all 60 schools in the district.

"They [health-care professionals] don't have the license, but there are several school systems that already have this in place," Heatley said. He did not specify which districts use health-care professionals instead of nurses, however. The superintendent said the district will also employ two lead nurses, which will cost an additional $114,348 a year.

Another cut, which has been proposed since Feb. 1, is the elimination of 52 media paraprofessionals in the county's elementary and middle schools. This is expected to save $1.59 million per year. It would also leave only one media person working in each of the county's elementary and middle schools.

School System Coordinator of Media Services Leslie Pratschler said that would put the district up against a state law that mandates that the school media center remain open while instruction is taking place in the school, and that school media specialists be allowed to take a lunch break. The media specialists are also the people at the schools who are responsible for making a lot of technology in the schools work, she said.

"Right now, if a piece of technology breaks down, the media specialist is your first line of defense," Pratschler said. "That's not going to be able to happen under this proposal."

Goree and School Board Members Pamela Adamson and Mary Baker said support personnel from other parts of the system should be used to provide backup for the media specialists, if the media paraprofessional positions are cut.

Heatley held firm, though, that the district will have fewer staff members next year. "There are going to be less people employed by the school district during the 2010-2011 school year than there were in 2009-2010," he said. "We can only employ so many people, because we have to keep the lights on."

He said he has seen what he called "cannibalism" begin to take place in the district, with employees sending him e-mails, pleading with him to fire someone else to save their own jobs. "I stand on the shoulders of 8,500 employees, and it hurts me when I get the e-mails that say, 'Please don't cut me, cut that other person,'" the superintendent said. "That's nothing but cannibalism."

Heatley did get some applause during his presentation, however. As part of his revised, proposed budget cuts, he backed off a few recommendations that had been criticized in recent weeks, including the elimination of benefits for part-time employees, including bus drivers and school cafeteria workers, as well as eliminating 187 kindergarten paraprofessional positions.

He said he will also not cut shuttle bus services that take students to school choice, charter school and magnet school locations, although he said it will now be the responsibility of parents to get their children to the shuttle bus pick-up point at the Professional Learning Center in Jonesboro in the morning, and to pick them up from that location in the afternoon.

Heatley said the fear that bus drivers and cafeteria workers had about the elimination of their benefits was "unintended" when he made the proposal. He said he never intended to cut the benefits of those particular employees, just other part-time employees.

The superintendent added that he did not realize bus drivers and cafeteria workers were the only part-time employees who received full-time employee benefits, however. He also said he was withdrawing the recommendation to eliminate the kindergarten paraprofessional positions after several school system employees, including principals at the county's middle and high schools, told him they did not support it.

The caveat is that he will ask the State Board of Education for a waiver to add three more students to each kindergarten classroom, meaning the classes would have 25 students per teacher and paraprofessional, instead of the current 22 students.