More furlough days may be coming for Fayette schools

It could be furlough time again for Fayette County School System employees. Furloughs in 2009, along with other system-wide cuts and cost-saving measures, aren’t off-setting what looks to be upcoming cuts by the legislature and a local tax digest expected to take a nose dive.

School board members March 2 while discussing budget matters and funding projections took up the issue of adding one to three additional furlough days before the end of the school year as a hedge against decreasing revenues that are expected to impact next year’s budget.

“We’re not just dealing with this year. We’re projecting about $11 million in cuts next year,” said Superintendent John DeCotis, adding that if the fund balance is used now to offset the need for furlough days, it could put the school system in a difficult position in the next budget cycle.

“So the concern is next year, what we will have to cut,” DeCotis said. “But the amount to cut is about the same as our fund balance. We don’t want to give furlough days. Staff have done a phenomenal job. Staff have sacrificed and need to be recognized. And what we do this year will impact next year.”

And that was the point. At $600,000 per day, one employee furlough day tacked on to the projected $10.333 million estimated fund balance would mean starting the July 1 fiscal year with $10.933 million. Three furlough days would increase that total to $12.033 million.

Board member Lee Wright suggested doing “whatever we need to do this year,” suggesting that the two recent snow days might be used as furlough days.

For her part, board member Janet Smola said she wants to see what legislators do about the state revenue shortfall.

“If we delay the decision, it would be bigger bites out of smaller checks,” said board Chairman Terri Smith, noting that the pay reduction through furlough days could be spread out through August for teachers and through July for other school system staff.

Board member Bob Todd said he agreed with Wright and DeCotis.

“We’ve got to be sure we don’t start July 1 in the hole. The only well we’ve got is in those (furlough) days and we need to set a timeline for deciding,” Todd said.

Smith in further comments noted that, “The committees aren’t going to come up with the cost savings we need.”

Comptroller Laura Brock at the meeting projected a June 30 balance in the general fund totaling $9,343,277. That amount includes the $4,509,616 carried over from last year and $4,833,661 projected to be the surplus from this year’s general fund budget. But even with that total the school board noted the tenuous nature of the economic climate that continues to affect school revenues.

Potential cuts from the General Assembly for the remainder the fiscal year and for the coming year beginning in July could well mean additional cuts to school systems across Georgia.

And here at home, preliminary tax digest numbers are expected in a couple of weeks, with tax-levying entities, including the school system, expecting lower revenues. Brock said she expected that those figures could lead to a decrease of more than 5 percent in the tax digest.

Some Fayette municipalities are anticipating a 7 percent decrease in the tax digest.

The school system budget at the beginning of the year last July showed the $185.5 million general fund budget split nearly evenly between state and local revenues. Now adjusted, the budget stands at $179.2 million due to state cuts.

Brock at the meeting also proposed an additional cut of $990,000 in various operational costs, bringing the year-ending surplus projection to $10,333,227. Those cuts would come from central office operational funds such as copier leases, instructional and administrative areas, custodial and classroom supplies.

Responding to occasional reports by parents and employees to The Citizen that schools do not always have sufficient supplies of things like toilet paper and paper towels, Brock said the proposed cuts would not mean that items such as paper towels and toilet paper would not be available.

“While we have frozen school level budgets, we have always made available to schools 100 percent of their equipment rental accounts (to pay for copier lease agreements) and 100 percent of their custodial supplies account,” Brock said. ”We have also made available additional central office funds to pay for soap, paper towels and toilet paper. We have informed all principals to let us know if they are having trouble getting these items. No school will be without these necessities.”

School system spokesperson Melinda Berry-Dreisbach added that parents with concerns about not having toilet paper or any other necessity at a school should go to the principal and have the principal contact the board of education about the issue.

Later this month or in April board members will take on the issue of using surplus funds this year to offset expected cuts next year or forego the furlough days and see what happens with the General Assembly and the tax digest.