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BoE may look at staff cuts, tax hike

POSTED: November 7, 2011 7:01 p.m.

After weathering years of budget woes and combing out expenditures, the Effingham County Board of Education is now considering a move that may result in faculty cuts.

At the school board’s Nov. 17 public forum, Superintendent Randy Shearouse will present the state of the system’s finances. Afterwards, he’ll pitch the idea of taking high schools off the 4x4 block schedules, onto either a traditional six- or seven-period day or a hybrid model of the block and traditional.

“We still feel by changing our high school schedule in some way,” Shearouse said, “we can still provide a great education for our kids and still provide opportunities for them outside of the core academics, yet save by not having as many teachers on staff at our high schools.”

This suggestion comes after three years of severe austerity cuts from government funding, in which last year alone the state withheld $8 million in earned funding from the system as an austerity measure. Shearouse said the Effingham school system has seen approximately $25 million in state funding pulled from its budget, a year’s worth of local revenue, since 2003.

With those stark realities in mind, the board is speculating about certain legislative tweaks that may open up other revenue avenues for public schools in Georgia.

But Shearouse said that without a sizable revenue intervention, the system may have to look at increasing the millage rate and adding furlough days to make ends meet in fiscal year 2013.

“All those things we’ve done to keep our folks employed, to keep our programs in place,” Shearouse said, “I thought that at this point we would not be concerned about another year. But from where I’m standing now, looking at FY13, it appears that it’s going to be another difficult year.”

Past efforts

The Effingham Board of Education has been creative in its efforts to reduce spending to adapt to the challenging times, and they’ve done so thus far without mass layoffs or cutting programs.

“We’ve worked very hard to make sure that we didn’t have to reduce any of our programs that we offer our kids,” Shearouse said.

Major savings have been realized these past three years through furloughing staff for two years, six in one school year and five in another — although the school system avoided calendar reduction days for this school year. The district’s energy efficiency program also has cut down on utility expenses, and schools try to avoid using substitute teachers, with teachers and paraprofessionals stepping in as much as possible. The system also cut its public library funding.

The system has not replaced more than 100 BoE employees at all levels who’ve left the system through attrition, which has resulted in what Shearouse hopes are temporarily increased class sizes.

“I don’t think that we can continue to have the larger class sizes,” he said, “and I definitely don’t think we can increase them any more than we have now. So that option is kind of off the table, where we’ve had that option before.”

He said that coming to this year has been difficult to come to terms with.

“It’s difficult to face,” said Shearouse. “Our folks have been great in handling changes we’ve had to make because of the economy. I thought we’d be out of this by now.”

Funding the future

During discussion of changing the high school schedules, the BoE discussed revenue mechanisms that, even if made temporary, could relieve some of the burden on tax payers and preserve the programs and staff the system will still have going into FY13.

Legally, the only local revenue streams a Georgia public school system has are education special purpose property taxes and local option sales taxes, which can only be used for capital improvements for now, such as building and maintaining facilities. Throughout the economic downturn and budget cuts, the system’s millage rate has remained at 15.333, even this year when the property tax digest contracted again, cutting out another $500,000 in revenue.

But Shearouse predicts that this year the school board will make its toughest decisions yet.

“Unfortunately,” said the superintendent, “the way the budget is working, and there’s a lot that has to be done before we finally decide on a budget in June, where I’m looking from right now … unfortunately, it looks like it’s going to be a combination of some reductions occurring and the possibility of a tax increase. It’s not either-or, unfortunately; we may have to look at both, and, also, unfortunately some other areas, as in calendar reduction days again.”

Shearouse said that he believes parents appreciate the programs offered through the school system and that there is a “silent majority” who’ll do what it takes to keep them intact, even if that means bumping up the millage rate.

Legislatively, Shearouse said that recouping some losses in state funding would be of the most immediate help for next year’s budget.

But he and the school board members also have spoken to local legislators about broadening the uses for E-SPLOST dollars.

“If they could even broaden the definition of ‘capital improvements’ to include some other things,” Shearouse told board members, “… it could help us be able to pay for some other things as well, as a temporary thing until we get out of this quagmire we’re in.”

Shearouse said that he personally believes that a penny consumption tax levied statewide or regionally for education would help to compensate poorer districts without a broad property tax base.

Shearouse said: “Think if you had a regional sales tax for education — if it brought $150 million (as expected from T-SPLOST) to this county for 10 years, what you could do to reduce property taxes. I mean, you can’t make a promise of how much exactly, but you know if you’re getting $10 million a year in, you’d be able to reduce property taxes.”

He said that in commuter districts with more homes than businesses, the revenue could be spread fairly with a statewide education penny tax.

At the Nov. 2 meeting, Chairman Lamar Allen said he does not see the legislature adding anything on the ballot that may interfere with next year’s T-SPLOST vote.

“I don’ think that that’s going to fly this year for the simple reason that they’re not going to let anything interfere with TSPLOST,” Allen said. “Anything that’s got to be voted on by the public other than TSPLOST that concerns taxes, no matter what it is, I don’t see it happening.

“TSPLOST is the thing that’s driving everything right now in Atlanta. That’s their baby, and they’re pushing it hard.”

Shearouse, though usually optimistic, said, for now, they are trying to do what’s best with the students in anticipation of another grim budget year.

“I hope that this is not the new norm,” he said. “And if it’s the new norm, we’re going to have to dwindle down our expenses to adjust to that. But it’s certainly my hope that this is not the new norm.”

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