School system tightens its belt
Job cuts possible in coming budget year

COVINGTON - Officials at the Newton County School System already have done a lot to tighten their budget, but they've still got a lot more work to do.

NCSS Superintendent Steven Whatley asked members of the Newton County Board of Education during Tuesday's work session to allow the system to move forward with a plan to develop the 2009-10 budget that may include a reduction in force and other cuts.

He said the system could experience an almost $11.1 million or more revenue shortfall by June 30, 2010, because of current and future state cuts, the senior exemption tax coming through and other reductions in taxes and revenues.

"I don't think we in the school district have ever faced this type of situation," he told the board members Tuesday.

He said the system must be proactive now in preparing for an even tighter budget next school year.

The plan calls to identify $2.6 million in non-personnel related expenditures by reducing system departmental budgets and reviewing current vacancies. Additionally, with the recent state Board of Education allowing for an elementary and middle school classroom increase of two students, it could reduce the need of a few dozen teachers; however, the system plans to open two new schools in August, Liberty Middle School and an elementary school on Kirkland Road.

"My desire is that cuts could be made in the 2009-10 budget without having to reduce the number of employees," Whatley said in a memo to board members. "However, that would be difficult since 87 percent of the budget is allocated for employee salaries and benefits. It is also my desire that an involuntary reduction in force would not be necessary and reductions could be taken care of through attrition and through transfers to the new schools. However, realistically in this economy, I realize that to some extent an involuntary reduction in force may be likely."

In addition to lower-than-expected fuel costs, Deborah Robertson, associate superintendent for administration at NCSS, said this budget year, the school system has already reduced spending by about $4 million through employees curtailing their spending at the school and system levels, so she expects the system to be able to end this budget year with at least its ending fund balance of more than $10 million for reserves.

Whatley said reserves could be used to help any budget shortfalls, but he wants to keep the school system's current responsible financial status by keeping a 7 percent reserve fund.

To prepare for the beginning of the 2009-10 budget year in July, over the next couple of months, NCSS officials are creating school budget packets and allotments, and at the end of February, officials will meet with principals to review the budget process.

"Out of respect to our employees, once the board approves this recommendation, the administration and I will move quickly in developing these plans and procedures so that employees can be notified of any change in their employment status for the upcoming year," Whatley said at the work session. "Our employees are more than numbers. They are important to us in the delivery of service ... and our No. 1 concern is student achievement."

In February and March, principals will meet with school faculty to determine budget requests, and later in March and April, principals and associate superintendents will work on budgets.

At its April meeting, Whatley plans to discuss the preliminary budget with the school board before the staff works to finalize a tentative budget, which will be presented to the board in May.

After the board reviews the tentative budget, it will hold necessary meetings and adopt a tentative budget. After any other meetings and public hearings are held in May and June, the board plans to approve a final budget and set the millage rate at its June meeting in order to begin the fiscal year on July 1.

The board will vote on the budget plan at its next regular session monthly meeting, which is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday. Meetings are held in the board room at the Newton County Board of Education building, located at 2109 Newton Drive in Covington.

Michelle Floyd can be reached at michelle.floyd@newtoncitizen.com.