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Heatley’s budget-reduction plan raises concerns

During this week’s Clayton County Board of Education meeting, School Superintendent Edmond Heatley presented board members with his proposal for a budget-reduction plan aimed at helping the county deal with an estimated $65 million budget shortfall over the next three years.

The shortfall is anticipated because of continuing economic woes, a shrinking or stagnant tax digest, and expected cuts in federal and state funds. Heatley said his plan will save the district more than $55 million over that three-year period.

After an exhausting discussion, board members seemed to be puzzled by the proposal and had several questions that revealed their uneasiness. They seemed particularly concerned that Heatley’s proposal would make substantial cuts in areas dealing with teaching and learning, which could have an impact on academic success.

Heatley’s suggestions that parents be required to pay for the college-prep testing, that elementary, middle, and high school staffing be “restructured,” and that average classroom sizes be increased by three students, drew pointed questions from school board members. Reductions in these areas, collectively, according to Heatley, will save the district approximately $32.8 million over three years.

“I’m not sure how you can make students pay for testing when most are economically challenged,” said the board’s chairperson, Pam Adamson. “It will be difficult to get the data that we need [on student achievement].”

Adamson, a retired educator, said she is also on edge about increasing classroom size, even as the board unanimously approved sending a request to increase the number of students in a class, to the State Board of Education.

“Increasing the number of students in the classroom is always a concern with me,” she said. “With more students in a classroom, it makes it difficult to teach children.”

Board Member Jessie Goree added, “With the graduation calculations that have just come out, we definitely do not need to make any cuts in testing. [And] we need to focus on student achievement, and I think increasing class size will be too much for teachers.”

The new graduation calculations to which Goree referred were released this week by the State Board of Education. Under the new formula, which seeks to standardize how graduation rates are measured statewide, the overall high school graduation rate for Clayton County’s public schools in 2011 dropped from 80.2 percent, to just 51.48 percent. The report also showed that the graduation rate for the state of Georgia overall declined to 67.4 percent, from 80.9 percent.

“We say we want rigor and student achievement, so parents should not have to pay for testing,” said Goree. “To my knowledge, we have never made parents pay for testing before — why should we have to make them pay now?”

Mary Baker, vice chairperson of the board, said her concern is that, in a county in which the majority of students are eligible for the free- and reduced-lunch program, it is unlikely that parents can afford to pay for testing. “We have parents who cannot put out $500 to $600 in tests,” said Baker. “I don’t know how we can expect that.”

In response, Heatley told board members that, if the district declines to make parents pay for the tests, then his recommendation will be to eliminate the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which is a challenging diploma program primarily aimed at students ages 16 to 19. He said, then, the district could focus on expanding dual-enrollment and Advanced Placement programs.

“The district cannot afford to pay for those [IB] exams,” he said.

Another strong concern among the majority of board members was Heatley's recommendation of “restructuring” staffing at elementary, middle, and high schools. “What exactly do you mean by restructuring?” asked Goree. “Does this mean we will be losing staff?”

“Restructuring is changing the way [schools] currently do business,” Heatley responded.

In middle schools, he said, the district expects to save $12.8 million, and in high schools, $18.8 million, over a three-year period. No estimated savings were given for elementary schools, however.

Heatley told board members he would provide a more in-depth report on the budget-reduction plan and restructuring after he meets with school principals. Adamson said Heatley will present that report during the school board’s retreats on April 14 and 28.

Some of Heatley’s other proposed reductions include: Eliminating middle school athletics ($2.6 million); eliminating eight positions in safety and security, and restructuring the School Resource Officer contract ($1.6 million); eliminating Arts Clayton’s after-school and summer programs ($45,000); eliminating two positions in Human Resources ($331,551); eliminating four positions in professional learning ($887,508); and adding a five additional instructional days to the school-year calendar ($15.4 million).

Adamson added that, although the objective is to find ways to save money for the district, she sees at least one good thing in the proposed reduction plan — it should result in fewer teachers losing their jobs than in years past.

In other business:

The board voted unanimously to reject Heatley’s recommendation to award a multi-million-dollar contract for a SunGard 360 system that would handle student, financial and human resources information in one package. Board members, however, approved Heatley’s recommendation for funds — as they become available — for new textbooks and related instructional materials for courses in grades K-12 to be purchased from multiple suppliers. The board also selected Board Chairperson Adamson, and Vice Chairperson Baker as its delegates to the Georgia School Board Association.