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School board pushes ahead with budget, cuts
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After months spent preparing for the worst, the school board received better than expected reductions from the state and approved their tentative budget — a balanced budget — last Thursday.

Since their retreat in April, school board members have been planning for more than $6 million in cuts for the next fiscal year. But after receiving revised numbers from the county and state, they now expect to cut only $4.6 million to balance the budget.

The tentative budget does remove one assistant coaching position per sport at the middle and high schools, reducing the total supplements assistant coaches receive. The schools will divide them up as they wish. A number of middle school parents were in attendance to plead to save middle school sports after a rumor had spread that the middle school sports programs would be cut or that they would only be playing within the county. The parents asked to allow the booster clubs to raise money for them to travel.

“As of this point in time, nothing has been decided. But the one thing that has been decided is middle school sports will not be cut out,” said BoE Chairman Lamar Allen, emphasizing that they are looking at if and how they could enhance the programs.

Superintendent Randy Shearouse clarified that he was more concerned with them getting out of school early and perhaps moving game times back so that parents could attend and hosting in-house invitational tournaments. Later Allen told the parents present that he wished they would just call the board office or their board members when they have concerns like this so that they could be cleared up immediately instead of relying of hearsay.

One of the biggest changes was in equalization grant funds, where they expect to receive approximately $900,000 more than anticipated in their draft budget. Equalization funds assess property values versus student population as a way to catch the county up to other, wealthier systems. In property tax revenue, the board now expects to take in $25,954,522, a $144,228 increase from the draft budget. But it is still below what it has been over the past few years.

The Effingham County school system received an additional $9,655,010 in austerity and other state reductions for fiscal year 2011 and a $3.5 million reduction in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds. This brings the total amount of state austerity and other reductions to the system to a whopping $31,036,158 over the last eight years.

The BoE found room to save $4,644,009.38 next year in this tentative budget through decisions they’ve already made, such as moving pre-kindergarteners to their district schools and eliminating graduation coach positions at both of the high schools. The school board also has reduced five employee days from the school calendar next year. Six days worth of cuts were included in austerity cuts from the state, leaving local boards the flexibility to decide how to find those reductions.

Between elementary, middle and high school teaching positions, 29 contracts were not renewed, mostly through attrition. No lost positions in the system, including central office losses, are being replaced next year, but Shearouse said he does not expect to have to raise class sizes beyond the state limit.

Other estimated savings include a 50 percent reduction in public library funding and changing the reading recovery model to be included in federal funding rather than local. The school board was able to realize savings by finishing summer school during the year in the elementary schools, as they did last year, and by completing professional development during the school year.

Shearouse emphasized that the governor has yet to  sign any of these figures into law and they may have to make another adjustment, but he said that this is what they are looking at as of now.

The next meeting will be June 2 at 2 p.m. at the school board office and the final budget will be approved June 24 at 7 p.m. at the board office.