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Heatley's budget-reduction plan gets OK, though modified

After weeks of consideration and exhaustive discussion, the Clayton County Board of Education decided to move forward, Monday, with the proposed budget and budget-reduction plan recommended by Superintendent Edmond Heatley, but not without some modifications.

Because of continual economic woes, a shrinking or stagnant tax digest, and expected cuts in federal and state funds, Heatley told board members, the plan is aimed at helping the county deal with an estimated $40 million budget shortfall over the next three years.

According to Heatley, his reduction plan will save the district approximately $20 million over that period.

Board members finally seemed a bit more at ease with his proposal, Monday, even though it makes cuts in several areas, including some dealing with teaching and learning. Those changes would include parents paying the total costs of college-prep tests for their children.

The board members had, earlier, voiced strong concerns about how the cuts might impact academic success. They had also expressed serious reservations about the superintendent’s proposal to cut middle school sports, and make deep reductions in arts programs.

Heatley, told board members, however, that he had changed his mind about requiring parents to pay the entire cost of college-prep testing. Now, he said, they will only be required to pay half of those costs. Other modifications to the budget-reduction plan include: Class sizes will only increase by two students, instead of three, and the school system will keep the sports and arts programs.

Even though the board accepted the plan for the sake of moving forward, School Board Chairperson Pam Adamson said changes can still be made before final adoption of the budget. She said she is “still on the fence” with the decision to increase class sizes by two students. Adamson, a retired educator, said, “With more students in a classroom, it makes it difficult to teach children. We already have classrooms with 30 students; you try teaching more.”

Board Member Jessie Goree said she was still unsettled by Heatley’s statement that middle and high school staffing would be “restructured” as another cost-saving measure. “I still want to know exactly do you mean by restructuring?” she asked. “Does this mean staff will be losing jobs?”

Goree followed up quickly by saying, “I’m demanding the superintendent to provide a more in-depth report on what restructuring means.” Adamson agreed, saying the superintendent should have provided more details at Monday’s meeting.

In middle schools, Heatley said, the district expects to save $12.8 million, and in high schools, $18.8 million, over a three-year period. In response to Goree, he said: “This will mean how many positions will be cut from the school system.” But he added that it would be “unethical to show specifically what positions would be cut, in respect to the teachers occupying those positions.”

Adamson agreed, adding, “We have to protect the employees.”

School board members also expressed concerns over Heatley’s suggestion to have one certified music teacher to teach all music courses, such as chorus, orchestra, band, and strings. “You can’t have a teacher, who is certified in teaching strings, to teach chorus,” said Adamson. “Keeping our arts program is important. Research has shown that students who participate in arts are more academically successful.”

Fearing the school board would do away with middle school sports and the arts program entirely, scores of teachers, students and parents were present at Monday’s meeting, many with with signs in support of keeping those programs the way they are currently being operated.

Heatley acknowledged the boisterous crowd, and assured those present that the district is not eliminating the arts and sports programs. Initially, he had talked about cuts to the arts and athletics programs that could save the district $900,000. He said the school system will not eliminate the middle school sports programs, but they will stay under one condition –– that parents will be required to pay $35 for each student who participates.

School Board Vice Chairperson Mary Baker made a motion to move forward with the superintendent’s reduction plan, with the additional modification that the arts program will be fully funded. The board approved the decision, which left the audience visibly relieved.

Some of Heatley’s other proposed reductions, and how much they are expected to save, include: Eliminating eight positions in safety and security, and restructuring the School Resource Officer contract, ($1.6 million); eliminating two positions in Human Resources ($331,551); eliminating four positions in professional learning ($887,508); and adding five instructional days to the school-year calendar ($15.4 million).

Adamson cautioned that, although tentatively approved, the plan could change between now and June 25, when the board is required to vote on a final budget.