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Final NCSS budget is approved

COVINGTON -- After three public hearings that garnered little input from the public, the Newton County Board of Education has approved its final budget for the 2010-11 school year.

"We are satisfied that this is a budget that we can move forward with," said Steven Whatley, superintendent of the Newton County School System, adding that the board members and school officials have met several times to discuss the budget and review each line item. "We tried to keep focus on instruction, balancing the needs of the classroom ... and realizing the needs of taxpayers given the depressed economy."

During its regular meeting last week, the school board unanimously approved a budget with $135,957,721 in state and local revenue next school year -- $44,854,157 from local taxes, earnings on investments and other local sources, and $91,103,564 from state earnings and grants, according to estimates.

"It was a budget difficult to put together because we still have not gotten the final state allocations," Whatley said.

The system is expected to start the year with a beginning fund balance of $5,869,074, down from the nearly $10 million the board started with this school year.

After expending $136,353,080 in instruction, student services, staff support, administration, maintenance and operations, transportation, and other services, NCSS expects to have an ending fund balance of about $5.5 million by the end of the school year on June 30, 2011, Whatley said.

Although the rollback millage rate -- the tax rate needed for the school system to generate the same amount of local revenue it did this year -- would be 20.41 mills, the board legally is allowed to increase its millage rate only from the current 18.21 to 20 mills. Therefore, it expects to collect less revenue than it did this year, even with an increased millage rate.

But even with the school system's millage increase, Whatley said most homeowners will pay less in school property taxes this year than they did last year because of the decrease in the value of the tax digest.

Whatley said this budget shows the largest decrease in the county tax digest in the past five years due to the slowing economy after having several years of booming growth. In 2005, the digest produced $2.297 billion, followed by $2.524 billion in 2006, $2.836 billion in 2007 and $2.955 billion in 2008. The digest decreased to $2.844 billion in 2009 with a slowing economy and is now down to $2.365 billion for 2010 -- an approximate $500 million drop from the previous year.

Barring any changes in state revenue or other unexpected cuts, NCSS has made the following changes: reduced the NCSS contribution to the 403(b) retirement plan from 3 percent to 1 percent and cut more than 80 certified and classified positions, including 61 teaching positions, 16 special education positions, three high school guidance counselors and two elementary counselors and the Transportation Department director, among others in schools, the central office and in support staff positions.

Earlier, system officials decided not to eliminate the 80 full-time paraprofessionals as originally planned, but instead will have them work only six hours per day for 178 days, the length of a student calendar. Also, as previously decided, a portion of the middle school athletics budget will be available, but it must be supplemented by a parent fee that has yet to be determined as it will be based on student participation.

The school board also has cut the teacher calendar by six days and the student calendar by two days, frozen salary rates and introduced other cuts to save money this year.