COVINGTON -- The Newton County Board of Education typically has a handful of residents visit its monthly meetings in the 95-seat board room on Newton Drive. But this month, at least 700 parents, students, teachers, coaches and other concerned community members showed up at Alcovy High School to attend Tuesday's meeting.
"I'm proud you're becoming involved," said school board Chair Cathy Dobbs to the packed auditorium, where the board moved to accommodate the large crowd. "We want to hear from everyone. ... We are open to any constructive ideas you have. This is a big puzzle for us. We are looking for all of the help we can get."
Newton County Sheriff Ezell Brown and a large contingent of his deputies were on hand at the event, which produced no incidents.
"I was impressed with the conduct of the crowd," Brown said. "They have a right to express their opinion and it was good of the school board to give them that opportunity. I think it worked out real well."
The school system is trying to cut at least $10 million from its budget to make up for a shortfall due to a decrease in state and local revenues. The system has proposed the elimination of about 77 elementary and special education teaching positions; almost 100 elementary paraprofessionals; graduation coaches and three guidance counselors and clerical staff at the high schools; a reorganization of administrative and clerical staff in the curriculum and operations departments; the entire middle school sports program; and several cuts to employee benefits.
"These people are not numbers," said NCSS Superintendent Steven Whatley during Tuesday's meeting. "They are people we know. ... They are our colleagues ... and that hurts. ... But we have a financial responsibility in this school system."
Whatley also said NCSS is proposing to cut the supply budget by $5 per child and reduce the number of calendar days.
"It doesn't sound like much, but it adds up when you are looking for $10 million," he said. "We want to provide the very best education for students, both in class and extracurricular. We also have to balance (the budget) based on our responsibility to staff and the taxpayers of Newton County."
This could mean cutting expenditures, raising taxes or a combination of both, he said.
Whatley said this is especially difficult when the state hasn't passed its budget; therefore, NCSS and other local systems across the state are left not knowing what their state revenues will be next year.
"We have to go about the business of planning next school year," Whatley said. "We have had to make some serious decisions. We know they are not popular."
Based on estimates, NCSS expects to experience a deficit of nearly $10 million. Whatley also said the system needs to maintain a reserve balance -- which is usually around $10 million -- in order to cover salaries during the months when tax collections are low, to weather mid-year cuts and to have money viewed as an asset when applying for construction projects.
He said NCSS isn't the only school system hurting in Georgia -- Cobb County Schools expects a shortfall of $137 million, Gwinnett $200 million, DeKalb $115 million and Fulton $120 million. Those systems are increasing class sizes, adding furlough days, implementing layoffs or hiring freezes and even closing schools.
After Whatley addressed the crowd, the board members allowed about 30 individuals who signed up before the meeting to speak for several minutes about budget cuts and other topics.
Several parents of special-needs children voiced their concern to board members about how the cuts to special education would hurt their children. The board has proposed cutting 16 special-education teaching positions.
"Without our teachers, our children will not succeed," parent Rose Stagemeyer said. "They need more help, not less."
Some speakers also were concerned with the severe cuts at the elementary school level and the elimination of dozens of paraprofessionals.
"We'll be tearing down the building blocks for our children's future," parent Alicia Eddy said.
Kindergarten teacher Shannon Price said if her paraprofessional is taken away, she will have to spend more time doing clerical work instead of teaching and also have to take her entire class to the bathroom or clinic when only one of them has to go.
"Paras are much more than copy people and babysitters. They are a huge asset to this county," she said, adding that she plans lessons with her paraprofessional, who also assists one-on-one with students who need extra help.
Several parents and students also were concerned about the cuts to middle school athletics.
"Middle schools can be very 'cliquey,'" said seventh-grader Taylor Jones, an athlete at Cousins Middle School. "Sports helped me become somebody in school. ... Do you realize what you'll be taking away from students who have turned their lives around because of school sports?"
Rick Hurst, head football coach at Eastside High School, said cutting the middle school sports program will hurt high school sports teams and also would hurt student grades.
"(The recreation department coaches) don't have a vested interest in these kids," he said. "They care about that team and that's it. ... (Middle school coaches) have a major impact on where these young people go. ... Athletics is not above the educational process, but athletics has a huge part in the educational process."
Some residents suggested taking a small percentage cut across the entire school system, rather than in a few areas, and others suggested tax increases and outsourcing services; some also suggested schools have fundraisers and booster clubs instead of forcing students to go to recreational sports teams.
"We are ready to do whatever it takes to keep our kids healthy ... and in school," said Kenneth Heflin. "It's about saving our children."
Whatley said the millage rate for the Newton County school system is at 18.21 for maintenance and operations, and that the board is allowed to increase the millage only up to 20 mills. Even if the board decided to set the maximum millage to collect taxes, NCSS still could collect less than it would this year due to tax cuts and reduced property values, Whatley said.
Board members also encouraged the public to take a survey on the NCSS Web site, www.newtoncountyschools.org, to provide budget suggestions and speak to state representatives about their educational concerns.
"We are taking these things under serious consideration," said board member C.C. Bates. "I hope you recognize that and continue to support the school system."
The school board is expected to approve a final budget for the 2010-11 school year on
June 15, according to its budget calendar.