School system forced to dip into reserves to replace lost federal and state funding

Grady County school system officials are not even close to finalizing the 2011-2012 operating budget but they are already focused on the 2012-2013 spending plan.
During a called meeting Monday, Superintendent Dr. Tommy Pharis told school board members his budget plan for the next two fiscal years was out the window.
“Things looked a lot differently in March. We though we were in pretty good shape then,” Dr. Pharis said.
As state funding for the Grady County public schools continues to decrease the pressure on the local budget increases dramatically.
Dr. Pharis and School Finance Officer Dan Broome reported to the board this week that the school system will have to dip into reserves to cover a $1,558,340 projected budget deficit.
“When began our budget talks in March the plan was to use some of the reserves we have built up to help in 2012 and 2013 and that would still leave us with 1.4 or 1.5 million in reserves. Next year with already a $1.5 million hole we can use reserves to carry us one year but not two,” Dr. Pharis said.
Driving the budget expenses are a decrease in state funds of about $1.3 million and the addition of 15 position that were fully covered with federal stimulus money that has now all been spent.
The superintendent is recommending to the school board to proceed with the current staff and programs plus the addition of three new teachers for the 2011-2012 fiscal year, which begins in July 1, and to utilize cash reserves to cover the projected $1.5 million deficit.
At the same time, Pharis and his administrative staff are beginning to strategize on the 2012-2013 budget.
Dr. Pharis is opposed to cutting more professional positions in the upcoming fiscal year because 20 have already been cut over the last couple years. However, he made it clear to the board this week that major changes will be necessary to fund the school system for 2012-2013.
The superintendent says he has already cut every expenditure possible in the general fund and everything that could possibly be funded with Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax proceeds is being paid for with sales tax dollars.
Some budget priorities discussed by the board earlier this year have also been abandoned by the superintendent.
Dr. Pharis had hoped to budget for an additional technician for the technology department and seven additional parapros, but all of that has been cut. The superintendent is squeezing in two additional parapros, one at Shiver and one at Whigham.
The superintendent had also proposed a professional development plan that would not only provide school personnel with advanced training but would allow them to earn stipends to replace some of the wages lost over the last two years. That too has been cut from four days of professional development to two at a total cost of $75,000.
“The primary way to cut costs in education is through personnel,” Dr. Pharis said.
The superintendent is proposing a no-holds barred review of the school system to include the possible reorganization of schools, increasing class sizes, program elimination, reduced salaries and a possible reduction in force.
“Here is the bottom line: What do we want our school system to be and then, how will we pay for that to happen?” Dr. Pharis said.
Finance Officer Broome bluntly stated, “we can no longer afford to fund the schools as we have in the past.”
To develop strategies and to hopefully achieve some “buy-in” to the necessary budget requirements, Dr. Pharis sought and received the school board’s approval to organize a strategic planning team to begin immediately addressing future budgets.
Pharis says the group will include people with “knowledge” and a “vested interest in our school system.”
“If I or you or Dan or a combination come up with a budget reduction plan I can just tell you it will not be accepted. People might say that is what we’ve got to do, but it will not be accepted at all. The reason being is everybody, and I’m not talking negatively about anybody, but everybody has their own priorities; everyone has a program in the school system they don’t want cut or impacted; everyone has a specific school in the system they don’t won’t cut; everybody has a group of students they don’t want impacted or whatever. They don’t want to see their interest cut,” Dr. Pharis said.
He went on to state, “They don’t feel the pressure to create a budget like you and I. I’m suggesting do this to have buy in. This team will not develop the budget, but this group of people will have the same information we have and they will make recommendations to us. We will give you options of ways to proceed.”
The superintendent wants to have specific options for the board’s consideration in June.
“If we cut 19 positions and increase class sizes we will show you what it will take to fund that budget and what millage rate it will take to pay for it. If we reorganize the schools we will show what it will save and what it will take to fund that,” Dr. Pharis said.
By involving others in the process, the superintendent is hopeful the team will approach the problem systemwide rather than focusing on individual schools. He also believes there is a greater chance for school personnel to “buy in” to the plan.
Although the school board and superintendent have historically opposed raising ad valorem taxes for schools, Dr. Pharis pointed out that the Grady County school millage rate is in the lowest 30 percent statewide.
Chairman Cuy Harrell III questioned the superintendent on that statement.
“We all know about millage rates and ad valorem taxes, but what it boils down to is what it costs to educate each one of our kids. Are we in the bottom 30 percent. Are we that efficient on what we spend per child?” Harrell asked.
Dr. Pharis said he would research the average cost per child to educate school children in the state, but he pointed out that the state funding is based on a formula that is used to determine funding for systems statewide.
“I don’t want to be the guy who said the sky is falling. We just don’t feel we’re going to be able to run the school system another year like we have been,” Dr. Pharis said.
Chairman Harrell asked if citizens would be involved in the strategic planning team or exclusively school personnel. Dr. Pharis said he was not opposed to citizens being involved and commented they would be welcomed.

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