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Millage hike could keep sports, staff

COVINGTON -- Some Newton County elementary school paraprofessionals and high school graduation coaches would be safe from unemployment, and middle school students would have the option to participate in sports, due to a proposed increase in the school system's millage rate.

Superintendent Steven Whatley said Tuesday night that after NCSS officials and members of the Newton County Board of Education met several times to discuss the 2010-11 school year budget, they decided not to cut some items originally planned for elimination.

In an effort to cut $10 million from its budget, officials last month proposed the elimination of middle school sports to save about $100,000, a reduced contribution to retirement programs and the cutting of at least 165 employee positions. The positions included 80 instructional paraprofessionals at the elementary school level, 14 part-time elementary paraprofessionals, three high school graduation coaches, 61.5 teaching positions, 16 K-12 special educational teaching positions, three high school guidance counselors and three clerical positions and reorganizations of the curriculum and operations departments at the Central Office.

However, on Tuesday during the school board's monthly meeting, Whatley announced that officials decided not to eliminate the 80 full-time paraprofessionals, but they would only work for six hours per day for 178 days, which is the length of a student calendar. He also said officials decided to keep the high school graduation coaches and reduce the NCSS contribution to the 403b retirement plan from 3 percent to 1 percent, instead of to .5 percent.

Whatley also said 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 that will be based on student participation.

He added that the proposed teaching positions and high school guidance counselors still are expected to be cut from the budget.

"This is a tentative budget and can still be changed up until the board votes (on the final budget) in June," Whatley said.

The reduced number of job eliminations is now possible because the school board decided to set the millage rate at 20 mills, the highest amount it is legally allowed to propose. Currently, the millage rate is 18.21 for maintenance and operations. The millage rate includes an additional 1 mill for debt services.

Whatley said although the rate will be increased, many homeowners in Newton County still will pay less in taxes this year than they did last year because home values are expected to drop 10 to 14 percent.

According to the tentative budget the school board approved Tuesday night, the beginning fund balance is $5,869,074. Local revenues are expected to increase about $4 million from last week's proposal to more than $4.85 million due to the millage rate increase, based on estimations. With more than $91 million expected in state and federal revenues, the school board expects to receive $141,826,795 in revenues.

It expects to expend the same, as a balanced budget is required. Instruction costs total $95.4 million, school administration totals almost $8.7 million, student transportation is nearly $8 million and the board expects to end with an almost $5.5 million ending fund balance. Whatley said the ending fund balance -- which is 3.8 percent of the budget, the lowest it has ever been -- has built into it $1.2 million in case the state requires furlough days next school year; the board also approved an employee work calendar that includes six furlough days.

Whatley said these figures could change, as state figures are still preliminary and local figures are only estimates.

Board members can change the presented budget up until they adopt a final version of it on June 15. The board plans to hold public meetings regarding the budget and millage rate increase at 6 p.m. on June 8, 10:30 a.m. on June 9 and 6 p.m. on June 15, as required by the Tax Payers Bill of Rights in the event of a millage rate increase.

The board and school officials met earlier in the day Tuesday to discuss more possible cuts by studying each line item in the budget. Some board members suggested cuts to custodian uniform rentals, drug testing supplements for professional and technical services, the outsourcing of maintenance and grounds work and various travel expenses for schools, clubs and sports. Officials also suggested having one Saturday work program for discipline, instead of four at each high school and Sharp Learning Center. They also decided to hold high school graduation exercises in 2011 at Sharp Field to save $7,500 for using facilities at Church in the Now.