School board calls for new options to close $86M gap
by Lindsay Field
April 07, 2013 12:09 AM | 3648 views | 4 4 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Cobb School Board Chair Randy Scamihorn is hopeful that district staff will come back with better recommendations on how to shore up a glaring budget shortfall of more than $86 million.

He and others on the board are looking for more creative ways to close the gap, without slicing into vital classroom instruction and support services such as buses for magnet schools. But the district is running short on time.

“I have good expectations that we are going to be much closer to the end after our next meeting,” he said Friday. “I am constantly urging (the staff) to continue looking for monies that we may just take for granted and don’t realize we are able to use.”

The board challenged Chief Financial Officer Brad Johnson to bring back more creative ideas to resolve the $86.4 million deficit at its April 17 work session.

“We’re going to take their direction from (Wednesday) and move forward and develop some budget ideas,” Johnson said. “We’re going to be working some crazy hours, but we’re going to do whatever the board wants, so we’re going to give it all we’ve got.”

Cobb Superintendent Michael Hinojosa met with his senior staff for a few hours following the Wednesday meeting and outlined what they would do with that board feedback.

“We all have to work in the processes, and there’s an art to compromise,” he said. “It’s difficult, but we also need to be fiscally responsible.”

Hinojosa plans to bring back a modified budget, and Scamihorn has scheduled a special meeting for April 22 at 2 p.m. in case they need it.

Hinojosa also addressed the board’s lengthy discussion about how much of the district’s reserves they’ll use to help soften the budget woes. Johnson said it will be between $100 million and $110 million by the end of fiscal year 2013.

The superintendent is pushing back against some board members who feel now is the time to tap into the school district’s healthy “rainy day” fund.

“It’s the right thing to do and the fiscally responsible thing to do to preserve it,” he said. “You don’t want to have too much in it, but we’re nowhere near having too much.”

District policy requires the board to have at least one month’s operating costs in the budget at all times — about 8.3 percent of the budget or $71 million.

But if there’s a fly in the ointment, it’s this: A portion of Hinojosa’s annual evaluation is determined by the reserve funds staying at the 8.3 percent level or higher.

Scamihorn said this requirement can be easily changed if needed.

“I think it’s a simple fix,” he said. “It would be unfair to hold someone to a standard that had to be slipped under to no fault of their own.”

Only ‘tough cuts’ remaining?

The finance department meets with each of the senior staff members and determines individual budgets, Johnson said.

“We ask them what can be done for the next year, and they get feedback from all the departments,” Johnson said.

Deputy Superintendent Cheryl Hungerford works with the schools to determine how many positions are available, and that’s something he said she’s doing at this time.

The senior staff will eventually get back together, lay all ideas on the table and determine priorities.

“When we talk, it’s like, ‘What is least hurtful to the classroom?’” Johnson said.

Over the last 10 years, as the school districts continue to receive cuts from state funding, those conversations have gotten more difficult.

“We only have tough cuts remaining,” he said. “They are all horrible cuts.”

Cobb County’s not alone

Johnson said other metro Atlanta school districts are also looking at tough cuts.

“We’re not the only people in this boat,” he said. “School district funding is just very difficult right now.”

With political pressure to keep property taxes from rising and state funding cuts every year — $72 million for Cobb this fiscal year and next — the budget talks statewide are bound to be rough.

Atlanta Public Schools is facing 10 percent in cuts, as well as no step increases for teachers and furlough days.

But Johnson said APS “has the luxury” of not having a cap on the millage rate. Cobb’s rate is capped at 20. Fulton County isn’t dealing with as many issues because it made deep cuts in 2011 and raised its millage rate by one point but is not allowing a step increase either, Johnson said.

“They already bit the bullet,” he said.

The Fayette County Board of Education is looking at a $15.5 million shortfall and anticipates closing four schools, cutting 310 teaching positions and cutting salaries, adding five furlough days and possibly ending some health care benefit supplements.

DeKalb County Schools functions on a $1 billion budget each year and isn’t anticipating any cuts, but the district does plan on continuing its hiring freeze, with the exception of teachers if needed, and a freeze on spending for travel and equipment or contracted services.

Just north of Cobb in Cherokee County, where the budget committee hasn’t finalized budget cuts, spokesperson Barbara Jacoby said they will probably face a $65 million shortfall and are looking at some tough cuts as well.

Its annual budget is about $321 million.

Gwinnett County is looking at running on a $1.76 billion budget next school year, which is about $13 million lower than this year. Schools spokesperson Sloan Roach said the district is looking at restoring two furlough days, doesn’t anticipate increasing class sizes and will add 18 school resource officers.

“We are continuing some of the measures we have taken in the past,” she said. “These steps have positioned us well for this coming year’s budget.”

Johnson said Gwinnett County also earns about $65 million in money from the state through an equalization grant.

“School districts in Georgia are eligible for an Equalization Grant if their wealth per student is below the state average for all school districts,” he said.

Last fiscal year Cobb contributed $135.6 million towards the state funding. The total for all State Equalization School District Grants for the next school year is $474.4 million.

Johnson said the state hasn’t determined what Cobb will contribute in fiscal year 14.

Marietta City Schools is just about the only district in metro Atlanta that isn’t anticipating any major cuts.

The city district, which serves about 8,000 students, will collect $74.2 million in revenues and spend $79.8 million for fiscal 2014, and is planning to dip into its $17 million reserve fund to fix the $5.6 million shortfall.
Comments
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Dallas Part Deux
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April 08, 2013
Hinojosa has done nothing for this community or school system. Test scores are down, class sizes are up, teacher morale is in the gutter, and his weak budget proposals maintain status quo on the backs of employees. The MDJ has never really dug into the structure of his administration, to see how well Hinojosa has padded himself to avoid culpability. Listen to him speak: he talks about the terms of his contract, not about success for Cobb kids or autonomy for teachers. He will leave Cobb in ashes with a fat paycheck, just as he did in Dallas.
anonymous
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April 09, 2013
As soon as he can get the school district to prominse to pay for his vesting into the retirement plan he will leave. Vamanos!
cobbmom2
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April 07, 2013
You've already stirred the pot of ire. Georgia politicians are driving the state into the ground with the current tax situation. Cutting corporate taxes doesn't lure businesses to the state when we have a sub-par education system. No business wants badly educated employees and no one wants to move to a state with underfunded education systems. I for one want the people who will be paying for my social security to have excellent educations so they can get and hold the jobs a well educated populace can and will bring to the state.
anonymous
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April 07, 2013
I just don't get it that people in government work don't see that people in non-government work have faced all the same issues and cuts already, and why government workers think they are immune to what the rest of the country has faced and is still facing. This is not a cut or a put down. It is reality. Budgets have been cut down to the bone in most non-government corporations. I won't say anymore because I don't want to stir the pot of ire.
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