Property taxes will decide schools' budget deficit

In its best-case scenario, Clayton County Public Schools will likely end fiscal year 2011 with a deficit of $2.35 million. In the worst-case scenario, it will end the next fiscal year $13.35 million in the red.

Those are projections given to members of the board of education by School System Budgets and Grants Director Ramona Thurman, on Monday.

The question Thurman cannot answer right now is: Which scenario is more likely to come true? According to Thurman, the answer depends on how many Clayton County taxpayers pay their taxes by the end of June of this year.

The budgets and grants director said the district would need to receive at least another $10 million in property tax revenue to realize its best-case scenario for the budget. Even if the best-case scenario for local tax collection pans out, however, she said there will not be enough money to stave off a deficit in June 2011.

"If we get all of our tax revenue that we have budgeted for, we will end the fiscal year $2.35 in the negative," she said. "We will need to make, at least, an additional $2.35 million in cuts to end the fiscal year in the positive."

The district is expected to spend $360.26 million, while earning $336.27 million in revenues in either scenario, according to Thurman. However, how much property tax money is collected, she said, makes the different between beginning fiscal year 2011 with general fund reserves of $21.63 million –– in the best-case scenario –– or $10.63 million, in the worst-case scenario.

The prospect of ending its next fiscal year with a deficit is a daunting prospect for school officials, who do not recall the last time the school system ended a fiscal year with a deficit. School Board Member Pamela Adamson, who worked for the district from 1969 to 2000, was particularly vocal about the prospect of ending the year with a deficit.

"Clayton County always had money, partly because we have the airport located in our county," Adamson said. "It's just so shocking to still face the possibility of not having a balanced budget."

Adamson said she is especially troubled, because the school board just approved $39.82 million in budget cuts for the next fiscal year alone, as part of Superintendent Edmond Heatley's budget-reduction plan.

Among the steps approved as part of the plan were: Reducing the school year by five days; eliminating elementary summer school; eliminating middle school Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests and academic remediation; ending transportation for summer school, and home-to-school transportation for students in school-choice programs.

Other cuts include eliminating three positions on Heatley's cabinet, 166 school-based instructional coach positions, 52 media paraprofessional positions, 30 school improvement specialist positions, 25 kindergarten teachers and 25 kindergarten paraprofessional positions, 23 in-school suspension teacher positions, 10 coordinator positions, three director positions, nine media specialist positions, one assistant director position, and one assistant coordinator, and replacing all 37 school nurses with 63, cheaper, health-care professionals.

"I'm crushed, personally, because we cut so many people," Adamson said.

While the budget projection calls for, at best, ending the next year with a $2.35 million deficit, Thurman said it is still possible for all of the stars to line up, and the school district to end the next fiscal year with no deficit at all.

That would require, however, the best-case scenario for local tax collections, and the district pinching every penny it can in the next school year. "Generally, we don't spend all of our budgeted money," Thurman said. "We monitor expenditures throughout the school year to save money where we can."

The school board is scheduled to vote on tentative adoption of the 2011 budget on May 24.