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BOE snared in 'messy' budget discussions

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

After two hours of disagreements and debate that were at times confusing, the Clayton County Board of Education approved a "final" approximately $49 million budget-reduction plan on Tuesday that leaves many key, contentious issues unresolved.

The school board ended up having to scrap -- for now -- plans for the district to "recoup" $6.4 million worth of federal jobs bill money that was distributed to school system employees and school board members last December, because of legal issues surrounding the plan. As a result, several programs and actions that would have been saved from cuts, using that recouped money, are now facing cuts again.

Those programs and actions that would have been saved include elementary music, counseling and in-school suspension programs, all of which will now tentatively be cut in half. High school graduations also would have stayed at the Georgia Dome, in Atlanta, if the jobs money was recouped.

The school board voted 6-2 to approve a budget plan that does not include recouping the federal money, or saving the elementary programs and high school graduations' out-of-county location. Now, the board will have to hold a called meeting next week to vote on a legal plan to recoup the jobs bill money, and to keep the three elementary school programs, as well as continuing to hold graduation ceremonies in Atlanta.

"The majority of the board seems to be in favor of recouping the money, but we've got to make sure we're doing it legally," said School Board Chairperson Pamela Adamson, after the meeting ended. "You can't just tell people you're going to take back money that you gave them. You've got to have a legal foundation for doing that, and that's what we didn't have tonight."

Next Monday's meeting will take place at the Clayton County Public Schools Central Administration Complex, at 1058 Fifth Ave., in Jonesboro. The board's options include voting to recoup the jobs bill money at the meeting, or even implementing five furlough days for all district employees during the 2011-2012 school year, to save the other programs, said Superintendent Edmond Heatley.

"A budget-reduction plan was approved today [Tuesday]," he said. "The board could come back at any time and say 'Hey, instead of that, let's do this.' They have a special called board meeting, where they are going to consider something else ... I'm not happy, because I've got to cut $49 million from the budget ...

"Do I understand the hesitation?" Heatley asked. "I do, but at the end of the day, we're going to have to make these cuts, so we can balance the budget so we can continue educating the children."

Among the cuts included in the reduction plan approved on Tuesday, are: Reducing consultative teachers by 46 positions ($6 million); delaying textbook purchases in fiscal year 2012 ($2.8 million); reducing utility costs ($2.7 million); switching to a virtual alternative education program ($2.6 million); cutting 12 high school assistant principal positions ($2.3 million); cutting the elementary art program in half ($2.2 million); eliminating school shuttle bus services in the district ($1.9 million); cutting six middle school assistant principal positions ($1.1 million), and reducing the school system's transportation department budget by $1 million.

There are also $2 million worth of cuts to the school district's nutrition program, including eliminating 36 assistant manager positions in elementary schools; and eliminating free meals for custodians and school nutrition workers.

Adamson said school board members are ready to give back the jobs bill money they received, which she said equaled approximately $200 per board member. "We didn't want it in the first place," she said. "We were shocked when it showed up."

But, the long and contentious debate that took place over the budget-reduction plan left some observers shaking their heads. The key issue of contention was the jobs bill money, which was muddied early in the conversation, but became more muddied midway through the debate, when board members learned there would be legal issues involved in recouping the federal money.

"It doesn't seem like there was a well-thought-out plan," board member Jessie Goree told Heatley during the meeting. "Had we done a well-thought-out plan in the first place, we would not be in this predicament."

The superintendent responded by saying he was "offended" by Goree's comments, and by asserting that his reduction plan was indeed a plan. But, Clayton County Education Association President Sid Chapman said the process of reviewing, and approving, a budget-reduction plan has not been handled well.

At one point in early March, Heatley presented three different plans in the span of a week, and at least two additional revisions have been presented since then.

"The whole process has been messy," Chapman said. "It just has not been clear. There's been recommendations at one meeting, and then another [at another meeting]. The board has not had a clear picture of what the superintendent intends to do ... It's changed every time."