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Board begins discussing bleak outlook
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THE COMING months will be tough for members of the Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools board.

The board began the difficult process of establishing the fiscal year 2010 budget by going over the budget process with Rebecca T. McClain, Chief Financial Officer for the district, at its Feb. 4 meeting. “It’s going to be a very, very difficult year to devise a budget,” McClain said.

Thanks to the recession, no new programs will be added, and some in existence may be dropped. But which ones? Board members will have to decide.

Faculty and staff will have to be cut, although how deeply the cuts will go has not been determined. But who will go and who will stay? Again, board members will have to decide.

“This is not a year to have the flexibility to add things,” McClain cautioned. “We’re going to have to struggle very hard to not cut things we think are very important.”

Normally, the district has money enough not only to carry on as usual, but to add items to its “wish list,” Superintendent Thomas Lockamy said. “We must look at the programs that impact the greatest number of students and maximize the opportunity so more students will have the opportunity to take them,” he said.

McClain presented some budget principles borrowed from other districts that have already been through the financial wringer. One read, “High priorities in decision-making include minimizing the impact on students and minimizing potential effects on employees and their families.”

Many board members interpreted that guideline to mean staff cuts. “When we are making really tough decision, those two are going to be in conflict more often than not,” board member Julie Gerbsch said.

“This is probably the most difficult time this school district has been through in 30 to 40 years,” board President Joe Buck said. “You cannot make these kinds of cuts without cutting people. It’s going to get really tough.”

Board member SuSu Cox said the current outlook is the most difficult she’s seen. “This year will probably be the most difficult of my 10 years on the board,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve ever looked at reduction in the tax digest.”

Economic growth in the area has kept the tax digest high in the past, but dropping real estate values and a slowdown of development probably will mean a decrease this year.

However, there’s no way to determine by how much. The board won’t receive a copy of the tax digest until June 1, but must begin making decisions now.

“We may have to reduce even more after (June 1),” board member Irene Hines said.

Looking to other districts for guidance may not help. “Fayette County offered its employees the opportunity to rescind their raise,” Cox said. “Instead of people taking pay cuts, some lost their jobs.”

Board members plan to begin looking for extras that can be cut now. “If there is any way we can cut costs, we need to go ahead and start finding them,” Cox said.

Lockamy pointed out that the district could gain students next year as the worsening economy forces some parents whose children go to private school to reconsider their options.

Board member Floyd Adams reminded the board that it must look at all its options before making decisions. “We don’t want panic,” he said. “Our mission is to educate 33,000 students.”

The board will hold several workshops until May 13, when the recommended budget will be presented. On May 14, the budget will be made available in all local libraries, and a public hearing will be held May 21.

In other action, the board voted unanimously to drop the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools as its elementary and middle school accrediting agency and use the Georgia Accrediting Commission for the 2010-2011 school year. “It’s a good move that saves a whole lot of money and saves the schools a whole lot of headache,” board member Greg Sapp said.

Although the Georgia Accrediting Commission is not as demanding, going with it will mean considerable savings to the district, Lockamy said. The SACS accreditation will remain in place in the district’s high schools because those students are most affected as they already are preparing to enter higher education. cs