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BOE scraps shorter school year proposal

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

With little support among members of the Clayton County Board of Education, a proposal to cut the school year by 37 days, by going to a four-day week and making school days two hours longer, died Monday night.

Superintendent Edmond Heatley asked school board members to go through a list of 66 budget-reduction options, worth $57.5 million, and find $49.2 million to cut from the district's budget over a two-year period.

Board members, with little research to look at, concerning the effectiveness of a four-day school week, decided a 37-day reduction to the school year, which was worth $8.1 million, had to go. They voted 5-2 to keep a five-day school week, without a shorter school year.

"I'm personally worried about middle schoolers getting out at 6 p.m., when it's dark outside," said board member Mary Baker, who voted against scrapping the plan, but only because she wanted the district to provide data before she made a decision.

The cost of scrapping the shorter school year is that it may have prevented the board from scrapping another set of cuts, which drew a large crowd of protesters at this week's school board meeting: Reducing elementary art, music, physical education and counseling programs by half.

Indeed, after the school board rejected the shorter school year, it voted to accept the remaining options as the district's preliminary budget-reduction plan. That means the reductions to the elementary school programs are scheduled to go forward, with schools having to share counselors, and art, music and physical education teachers.

The reductions to those programs, collectively, add up to approximately $11.6 million, but Heatley's list of options effectively put school board members in a position of preserving those programs in their entirety, or preserving the school year at its current length.

"I don't see a way of saving a 5-day school week -- and arts and music at the same time," Heatley told the board.

Some of the other reductions approved on Monday, include: 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); eliminating school shuttle bus services in the district ($1.9 million); cutting eight coordinator positions ($1.9 million); eliminating the elementary school In-School Suspension program ($1.6 million); cutting six middle school assistant principal positions ($1.1 million), and reducing the school system's transportation department budget by $1 million.

The school district is also planning to save $92,248 by moving high school graduation ceremonies from the Georgia Dome, to the 1,800-seat Clayton County Performing Arts Center. Heatley said on Saturday that would likely result in students being limited to approximately three tickets for family members.

During a 30-minute, public-comment session, school system employees and parents argued for district officials to forego possible cuts to the fine arts, physical education and counseling programs in the county's elementary schools. As speakers stated their cases, other people in the audience applauded and waved "SAVE ARTS AND MUSIC" posters.

Possible budget cuts in Clayton County Public Schools drew a crowd of approximately 700 educators, and parents who mostly came to argue against the proposed cuts. Parents and students, who spoke to board members, focused mainly on the fine arts cuts.

"The price of seeing the pride in the face of a parent, or a student, when they perform cannot be put in a budget, because it is priceless," said J.W. Arnold Elementary School fifth-grader, Jessica Davis, the daughter of former Clayton County Board of Education Chairperson Ericka Davis.

Kari Rabideaux, who has two children at J.W. Arnold Elementary School, held up a piece of her daughter's artwork. Another parent, Dashonna Taylor, who has children in music programs at Jackson Elementary School, Jonesboro Middle School and Mt. Zion High School, had her children play their instruments for the school board.

"Do something remarkable for the children of this county," Rabideaux said. "Let us stand out against other counties that are cutting art and music."

Taylor also criticized district officials for being slow to hand out textbooks this school year, to her son at Mt. Zion High School. One of the district's budget-reduction options is to delay textbook purchases during the next school year.

"My high school son did not get his math textbook for two months, and now, I have to pay for him to go to summer school, because he did not pass," she said. "Thank you."

Angel McSwain, a counselor at the Eddie J. White K-8 Academy, told school board members that she did not think the district was living up to its "It's All About The Kids" slogan.

"I have to disagree, because talking about cutting positions that greatly impact students shows something totally different," McSwain said. "Is reducing the number of elementary school counselors the logical and effective solution to the economic crisis in Clayton County? If we reduce the number of counselors, how can we teach the children academically, if we are unable to reach them socially and emotionally?"

One question that has, so far, not been asked during budget discussions between the school board and the superintendent is, "What about redistricting?"

While Clayton County school officials are planning to look at county-wide re-districting, so students can be shifted due to some schools having empty seats, School System Chief Operations Officer Cephus Jackson said the issue was not included in budget-reduction options.

Neighboring DeKalb County Schools is looking at closing schools, but Jackson said it would take Clayton County officials approximately 18 months to complete the re-districting process, which would include reviewing data and holding public forums. If the district started now, the school system could be re-districted by the time fiscal year 2013 begins.

But, the district has not yet begun reviewing data, Jackson said, because it has still not received the 2010 county-level population figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. "They [DeKalb] have been looking at this for two, or three years," he said. "We can't begin the process yet, because we don't have the numbers."

Some board members asked about cutting salaries for high-level district administrators, but Heatley rejected the idea, claiming it would not be enough to make up for the anticipated budget deficit. "We could all work for free, and it wouldn't be enough," he said. "I could work for free for the next 10 years, and it still wouldn't be enough."

The school system has seemingly fast-tracked the introduction of proposals for cutting the $49.2 million during fiscal years 2012 and 2013, with the first presentation on reduction options coming to the school board only a week ago.

On Saturday, Heatley revised his list of options, but he gave school board members a deadline of just over 24 hours to review the new list and inform him of which options they were not willing to agree with.

As school board members hemmed and hawed about making a decision on what Heatley could move forward with, the superintendent started to become impatient, particularly when some board members said they wanted to see more data on a four-day school week before they approved it. At one point, he argued it would be unfair to the district's employees to drag the process out any longer.

"You've known budget reductions were coming," he said. "I need to have your recommendation tonight so myself, and my staff can move forward."

Clayton County Education Association (CCEA) President Sid Chapman blasted board members, however, for the speed at which the school system officials have introduced budget-reduction options and revisions.

"We're concerned about the speed at which this is moving forward," Chapman said. "There was one version brought forth a week ago, another one on Saturday and a third one tonight. It appears to us that you are not taking your time to review this. We feel that is, indeed, a neglect of your duties."

Public comment did become a source of argument between Heatley and school board member Jessie Goree, however. The school system allowed only 10 people to sign up for public comment. Heatley said this was done because it is the practice done at other school board meetings, due to school board policy only allowing 30 minutes for public comment.

Goree argued that the board should have allowed more people to sign up, and then, voted on extending the amount of time allowed for public comment. "That eleventh person, even if they only had a minute and half ... could have said something we hadn't thought about," Goree said.