School’s financial situation may not be so dire

The financial picture for the Grady County School System will potentially improve if state projections for mid-term allotments hold true, but Tuesday night two school board members remained focused on cutting personnel.
Tuesday night the Grady County Board of Education met to hear an update on the budget preparations for the fiscal year 2012-2013 operating budget from School Superintendent Dr. Tommy Pharis and Finance Officer Dan Broome.
The apparent good news is, according to Pharis, the system is expecting to earn about $850,000 more in state funding as part of the state’s mid-term adjustment to school funding in the state’s supplemental budget approved earlier this year by the Georgia General Assembly.
Dr. Pharis said an increase in the full time equivalent of 60 children was the primary reason the school system is eligible for additional state funding.
Another boost of nearly $500,000 in equalization funding from the state is also anticipated to brighten the system’s revenue picture.
“Based on these preliminary numbers Dan (Broome) and I believe we can balance our current budget without having to draw down our reserves by $1.4 million as well as balance next year’s budget and cover the increased cost for health insurance for classified personnel without drastic cuts to our instructional program,” Dr. Pharis said Tuesday.
The superintendent said he is not backing away from the board approved budget plan of maintaining every employee who is doing a good job and wants to continue to work in the local system.
The school system is also not going to fill positions vacated by retirement or resignation. Already 9.5 teaching positions will be eliminated in the next fiscal year budget through attrition as well as four classified personnel.
“We are going to continue to look at making improvements to gain greater efficiency and to do so through attrition. At the same time we will be focused on improving our over-all program without making drastic changes we thought we might have to make,” Dr. Pharis said.
Although the superintendent is opposed to a millage rate hike, he pointed out the average school millage rate in Georgia is 15.2 mills, a full mill more than Grady County’s 14.2 mill rate. Dr. Pharis also noted that Grady County spends $1,691 per student, but Thomasville City, Thomas County and Decatur County spend, on average, from $2,000 to $3,400 per student.
“I believe the taxpayers of Grady County are getting a pretty good deal,” Dr. Pharis said.
If the mid-term allotment figures hold, Dr. Pharis said the allotment sheet for the next fiscal year should be similar.
Board member Cuy Harrell III questioned if the projections and actual mid-term allotments had held true in previous years, but Finance Officer Broome could not answer positively without researching previous years.
“We are cautiously optimistic,” Dr. Pharis said.
The school superintendent said he will continue to tweak his budget planning in the event the additional state funding does not materialize.
“We are not going to stop working on this budget. Everything is on the table for discussion,” he said.
Board member Scott Higginbotham questioned the number of teaching positions at Cairo High School based on Dr. Pharis’ recommendation of average class sizes at the high school of 24 to 30.
“In a perfect world, and I know it’s not a perfect world, but 40 teachers could handle that, which leaves 35 other positions. That seems extremely high,” Higginbotham said.
Dr. Pharis said he was not prepared to comment, but after the meeting he told The Messenger naturally the class size averages in various elective courses would be much lower in core academic classes because students are only required to take the core academic courses. He also said it takes additional staff to offer the classes taught at the high school including vocational and business courses, Advanced Placement courses, and others.
Board member Allen Jenkins voiced concerns with the class sizes at the high school.
“It appears from these numbers that P.E. is more important than English,” Jenkins said.
The new District 3 board member said the focus should be on academics. “We’re not testing on the CRCT in P.E. classes,” he added.
According to the figures provided the board, Jenkins noted that there are 25-30 students per class in English classes and as few as 17 in physical education classes.
“It doesn’t add up,” Jenkins said.
“There are no ifs ands or buts about it. If you have good interscholastic programs in your school you have to have staff. We can make P.E. class sizes go from 20 to 50, but your programs will stink,” Dr. Pharis said.
The school superintendent said the community expected a well rounded program in the schools for the benefit of the community’s children including academics, athletics, and the arts.
Dr. Pharis also pointed out that over the last several years he had pushed for all physical education teaching slots to be filled by coaches rather than coaches being hired for academic teaching slots. There are currently five physical education teaching positions funded at Cairo High School.
“I understand what you are saying, but I am also aware of the expectations of the community. We can make changes if we need to make changes, but I’m looking at our total program,” Dr. Pharis said.
Previously, Board member Higginbotham had suggested the school system look at eliminating the seven instructional coordinators at the county’s public schools as a budget cutting measure.
On Tuesday night, Dr. Pharis and Assistant Superintendent Martha Fowler made the case for maintaining the seven instructional coordinators. As a last resort scenario, Fowler said an option would be to drop the number to four with schools either sharing coordinators or coordinators being responsible for select grade levels rather than entire schools.
“I can’t see us cutting anything that will have a huge impact on instruction and eliminating the instructional coordinators would do just that,” Dr. Pharis told the board.
None of the board members commented on the instructional coordinator positions Tuesday night.
Other budget options being considered with regards to student transportation, custodial and maintenance, and school nutrition program were outlined, but Pharis made no recommendations on any of them.
School system officials are also continuing to investigate ways to cut the projected  increase of $387,000 for health insurance for non teaching staff members.
Board chairman Teresa Gee Harris said she would “fight to the death” from increasing the cost of insurance for the classified personnel who are already “paid very little.”
The board chair also took the stand of “fight to the death” to maintain the instructional coordinator positions.
Ms. Harris said she, personally, would like to see Dr. Pharis present a budget plan with the least impact on academics and school personnel. She encouraged the board members to give the superintendent direction on the budget. When no one responded she said to submit questions, comments or suggestions to the superintendent via email, but to copy all correspondence with all board members “so we will all be in the loop.”
Dr. Pharis then called on all board members to look at him as he talked. He told the board a personal goal of his was to present a budget that would be approved unanimously by the board later this year.
“We haven’t had that in a long time. Whatever budget we come up with will not be 100 percent perect for all, but it will be one that is within our means. We might not get a 5-0 vote, but it would be something for us to shoot for,” Dr. Pharis said.

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