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Henry BOE asked to cut spending by $33 million

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

Because of funding cuts and revenue shortfalls, the Henry County Board of Education expects to spend $33 million less this coming school year, to educate as many as 300 more students.

The school district is projected to increase its enrollment to 40,805 next school year, but with millions of dollars in state funding cuts, and a $20 million loss in local tax revenues, bridging the funding gap is not going to be easy. With few alternative revenue sources, officials hope to accomplish its cost-cutting goals through:

* Furlough days,

* Decreasing staff,

* Increasing class sizes,

* Freezing salaries,

* Conserving energy,

* Limiting field trips.

"Increased class size, decreased staffing, and furlough days were the expenditure-reduction options that generated the most savings for the district," said Jeff Allie, Henry's assistant superintendent of finance, who brings budget and spending proposals to the board.

Henry's five-member school board is scheduled to vote on its final budget on June 14.

"I do not expect any major changes in the budget between now and June," said Allie, in an interview outlining the budget proposals.

The finance officer said school district personnel will be hit indirectly by a $33 million budget reduction, as 90 percent of the budget pays employee salaries and benefits.

"The impact on classroom instruction is always a concern when budget reductions of this magnitude are necessary," Allie said.

The budget proposal includes eight furlough days for most school district employees, and 10 furlough days for administrators.

More than 200 positions will be eliminated, according to the proposed budget of $284 million (which compares to the previous budget of $317 million). Class sizes also will be increased by two students per classroom.

All employees will experience a salary freeze, Allie added. Two other cost-cutting measures involve renewing the school district's emphasis on energy conservation, and initiating school field trip fees.

The $20 million reduction in local tax revenues, he said, is the result of decreases in the local tax digest. Allie said the local tax digest had increased by roughly 10 percent annually over the decade, until 2009, when the tax digest fell by 2.5 percent. The upcoming 2010 local tax digest is projected to plunge by 15.3 percent.

"The decrease in the local tax digest may be one of the largest in the state," Allie said.

Henry County Tax Commissioner David Curry reported that, while the number of taxable parcels in Henry County have increased from 82,299, to just over 83,000, in the past year, overall tax collections have been down.

Curry said foreclosures have decreased home values, and homes are not selling. The coupling, he said, has driven prices down and reduced the amount which would be paid in taxes on properties. "Henry County being a bedroom community, when the residential market falls, a lot of other things are affected," Curry said. "We hope next year, 2011, people will see their values come back up."

However, the local tax digest will likely continue to decrease beyond this year, according to Allie. "The decline last year was 2.5 percent," he said. "I would expect the digest to decrease again next year. It will be a challenge to provide the same level of service with a shrinking tax base."