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Tea Party concerned about Fayette school system

With school closings and near-certain personnel cuts facing the Fayette County School System next year due to a steep decline in local and state revenue, the Fayette County Issues Tea Party will examine potential financial solutions at a meeting Tuesday night at the amenities center in the Whitewater Creek subdivision.

Local Tea Party leader Bob Ross said he is hopeful the school system will be able to tweak its budget and still maintain its high quality level while also “providing some stability to concerned administrators, teachers, support staff, bus drivers and all employees.”

“There’s just so much uncertainty that it doesn’t advance our goal at all,” Ross said.

The goal of the meeting is to provide an overview of information such as enrollment, revenues, expenses and the like while also accepting audience input on ways to achieve educational excellence within a balanced budget, Ross said.

“We would like to get a big crowd there, get some good ideas,” Ross said, adding that a subsequent goal is to reorient everyone toward the positives offered by the school system and its accomplishments.

Ross said the meeting is not designed to “assign blame” for past events and decisions, nor is it a forum advocating for the election of either candidate in the Post 2 school board race.

“We’d like to document where we are and tell people: we are not falling off a cliff right now,” Ross said.

There is cause for concern about the school system’s budget, as the spending plan adopted earlier this year calls for expending the system’s entire $15 million in reserve funds to counteract a shortfall in state revenue of nearly the same amount due to “austerity cuts” ordered by the state to counteract lower state tax revenues due to the economic recession.

Another factor in play is the proposed continuation of the educational sales tax, commonly referred to as ESPLOST. Without the sales tax, the school system will lose an additional revenue stream of about $19 million a year that has been used the past four years to purchase buses and textbooks, improve technology and renovate existing schools, and also provide some property tax relief for local residents and businesses.

Although the current ESPLOST doesn’t expire until April 2014,if it is not renewed for the following five years the school system will face a significant revenue loss that coupled with the state decrease equates to a total hit of about $34 million.

Meanwhile, due to the loss of state revenue and declining student enrollment over the past several years, the school board is looking at potentially closing several schools including Hood Avenue, Fayette Intermediate, Tyrone and Brooks elementary schools and also Fayette Middle School.

Closing schools won’t be the full answer though, as each shuttered school saves roughly $800,000 a year in administrative and utility costs. Because the proposal is to combine Hood Avenue and FIS into one school and move the students to the underused Rivers Elementary school campus, even if the other three schools were closed, the savings would be about $3.2 million.

With some 90 percent of the general fund expenses on personnel, it’s almost certain that additional budget cuts will affect classrooms. At a recent meeting, school board member Terri Smith noted that the county may lose its first-grade paraprofessionals and also see class sizes increase system-wide.

The school board is also investigating the potential outsourcing of bus drivers, cafeteria workers, janitorial personnel and also may cut back on the total number of instructional days, the latter of which would result in pay cuts for teachers.
Tea Party officials are concerned about maintaining the quality of the school system, citing several Atlanta-area school districts that have had steep quality declines and corresponding drops in property value and classroom education quality including Clayton, DeKalb, Cobb and Atlanta public school systems.

An announcement on the meeting noted that school closings will impact every homeowner in Fayette County, with the unspoken notion that such closings will have a ripple effect on households even if they don’t have any children in the school system.

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