With the possibility of even more cuts in school revenues from the state, Superintendent Dr. Tommy Pharis told board members Tuesday night that “everything is on the table.”
“The one thing that I will guarantee is that the recommendations we make and ultimately the decisions you have to make will be controversial. There will not be anything easy about it,” Dr. Pharis said.
Among the cost cutting measures being discussed are cuts in the local supplements paid to school personnel; reduction of the school workforce; shorter work weeks and reduced work hours for non-certified personnel; elimination of city bus routes and others.
Pharis said Tuesday that the magnitude of the school system’s financial woes has not sunk in with school personnel, parents and taxpayers.
It was not until administrators met with Pharis this week to begin putting proposals on paper that some school principals realized the severity of the situation, according to the school superintendent.
The largest single item in the school system budget is personnel costs and Pharis says that is where the largest cuts will have to be made in order to balance future budgets without further increases in ad valorem taxes.
Currently the school system spends $27,253,000 on salaries and benefits for the system’s employees.
However, Pharis is more interested in alternatives such as cutting local supplements and furloughing non-certified staff than reducing the overall workforce.
The superintendent is also a firm believer in each and every school employee feeling the pinch of the budget reductions. “No one should be exempt. We all will feel the pain,” he said.
Pharis is not looking at eliminating existing school programs, such as after-school programs, art, music, gifted services or migrant education, but would rather make the arrangements necessary to earn additional state funding for these programs.
Prior to the adoption of the 2009-2010 budget next spring Pharis is hopeful that attrition will go a long way toward reducing costs.
“We want to retain the employees who are doing a good job and who want to remain employed with our system,” Dr. Pharis said.
However, as people leave the superintendent will determine which positions can remain vacant and where existing personnel can be reassigned to meet the needs of the students.
He says that all revisions and reorganization will be based on the benefit and needs of students first and foremost.
During his presentation to the school board this week Pharis reminded board members on more than one occasion that these are just some of the suggestions being considered.
“This is by no means all that we are looking at. There are many other ideas and suggestions that will come out as part of this process. I want to hear from members of the community and anyone else who is interested,” Dr. Pharis said.
The superintendent also made public his assessment that class sizes may have to rise in order to balance the school’s books. “We already have pretty low class sizes compared to surrounding counties, but we may have to bump them up.”
Board member Joe Porter questioned Pharis when information regarding the individuals schools and their staffing versus enrollment would be made available. The superintendent is hopeful to have that by later this month but not later than early next year.
“By our January 27 workshop we will have recommendations and priorities for us to discuss,” Pharis told the school board.
Board member Cuy Harrell III also asked if any consideration had been given to adjusting the funds allotted to the individual schools at the midpoint of the school year, much like the state does for school systems, based on changes in the enrollment of the individual schools. Dr. Pharis said that the system had “more or less” done that in this fiscal year.
Another long-term strategy that Pharis describes as the most “critical” for the stability of the school system is the renewal of the penny sales tax for education.
Pharis says that unless the voters approve the renewal of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax next year the school system will be “crippled” by its ballooning debt payment.
Currently the school system is spending approximately $380,000 in property taxes to pay back bonds sold to construct the new Cairo High School gym and other capital projects. The debt service on those bonds grows to over $600,000 annually beginning in 2011.
Should the voters approve the renewal of the tax next year the five year collection period for the sales tax would begin July 1, 2010. With the voters’ approval the system would use sales tax proceeds to not only pay back the bond debt, but also to finance the purchase of buses, textbooks and pay the leases on copying machines in the schools.
A portion of the remainder of the sales tax proceeds would be earmarked for debt and, according to Pharis, when the bonds are callable on October 1, 2015 the school system would have sufficient funds to pay them off completely leaving the school system debt free as of that date.
All of this is based on conservative estimates of sales tax revenues, Pharis says. “The bankers are telling us our collections could vary from $14 to $18 million over the term of the tax. We are using $14 million in our projections,” the superintendent said.
Pharis also predicts that SPLOST funds would also be sufficient to continue to fund school bus purchases and pay copier leases that otherwise would have to be funded through property taxes.
School principals have already begun sharing some of the proposals with their staffs and Pharis said he would be available to address school personnel if asked. He also plans to speak to local civic clubs and any other groups interested in the school system’s cost-cutting plan.