NEWS ANALYSIS — What’s behind BoE budget dispute?

The Fayette County Board of Education Monday night split 3-to-2 on the all-important preliminary vote of approving the coming year’s school system budget. Chairman Leonard Presberg and members Terri Smith and Janet Smola lined up on the prevailing side, which will drain the system’s checkbook; members Bob Todd and Marion Key took the opposing stance.

Here’s an analysis of the budget debate.

Pertaining to the points on budget information made by Key and Todd and by Presberg and Smola, both sides are correct up to a point. In the end, it may be that Key’s and Todd’s position more closely coincides with the factual history of the budget debate. Here’s why.

Just over a year ago, prior to Presberg’s appointment to the board, the late board member Sam Tolbert asked Bearden to return to the board with cuts of up to $10 million for the 2011-2012 school year rather than the $3-4 million he proposed. Todd and Key at the time agreed.

And though the instruction to Bearden did not include a vote it amounted to a consensus, much like that consensus on May 31 to eliminate the school system’s contribution to employees’ life and long-term disability insurance.

Bearden, nonetheless, stuck with his initial recommendation that the board adopt his budget and begin talking about budget cuts during the summer. The board essentially agreed.

Talks began in the summer in general terms and led to a community survey that included closing two elementary schools and a middle school and opening Rivers Elementary, having out-of-county students pay tuition to attend Fayette schools and shortening the school calendar. Bearden in the fall recommended that school closures be removed for consideration for a couple of years.

Also during the summer, Todd asked that Bearden have all his recommendations for the 2012-2013 school year presented by the end of the 2011 calendar year. Smola subsequently gave her opinion that those recommendations come in the early part of 2012. As it turns out, the only item recommended by Bearden came in December. It resulted in the board’s approval of a reduced school calendar for 2012-2013.

Bearden in February recommended that 72.5 school-based positions be cut, along with cutting some employee healthcare costs and reducing the operations budget. His recommendation also included items such as turning the assistant principal postions at four schools, including Brooks and Tyrone, into part-time positions.

Bearden in March recommended that the board authorize him to review potential school closures for 2013-2014. What resulted was the possible closure of two elementary schools and one middle school, all in Fayetteville, and opening Rivers Elementary. Additional options were later added that would also consider closing the elementary schools in Tyrone and Brooks.

Todd in April suggested closing Inman Elementary, consolidating the administrations of Hood Avenue Primary and Fayette Intermediate schools and leaving Rivers Elementary. Todd’s suggestion got no traction from the board.

Pertaining to the 2012-2013 budget, the school board at the May 31 workshop discussed portions of the proposed budget that initially carried a June 30, 2013 fund balance of approximately $67,000.

The board by consensus agreed on three items that will bring the anticipated June 30, 2013 fund balance up to nearly $803,000 rather than the initial $67,000.

The first item addressed by the board, at the insistence of Smola and board member Terri Smith, will add approximately $95,000 to the expenses initially proposed by Bearden when he suggested that the assistant principal positions at Brooks and Tyrone go from full-time to part-time. The board, by consensus, instructed Bearden to bring those positions back to full-time. Smola represents the Tyrone area and Smith represents the Brooks area.

The board by consensus agreed to cut the supplement paid to National Board Certified teachers that totals approximately $100,000. And rounding out the cuts was the consensus to cut the life insurance and long-term disability currently paid by the school system after the open enrollment period later this year.

The May 31 and June 4 discussions included another topic centered the school system’s the short-term future. It pertained directly to the discussions that the school board will be faced to confront this time next year. Unless additional savings in personnel and other budget areas are forthcoming during the school year or unless revenues see a dramatic upward spike the board will be faced with having expenses outstrip revenues by more than $14 million and a fund balance of $800,000 to offset it.

Pertaining to that scenario, the only suggestion to date involves a decision during the late summer to close up to four elementary schools and one middle school and open one elementary school for a savings of $3.2 million. Even if the board votes to do so, that would leave another $10 million in cuts required to balance the 2013-2014 budget next June.

Perhaps there is another way to increase revenues, though it is one that could prove problematic. Both Bearden and Presberg at the May 31 meeting said they had been told by a couple of parents that they would support a referendum allowing the school board to increase the millage rate beyond where it sits today at the 20-mill maximum allowed by Georgia law.

Final adoption of the 2012-2013 budget is expected at the school board’s regular meeting on June 18.