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Mathews hears from public about NCSS budget cuts

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

COVINGTON -- Newton County School System administrators got to hear from some members of the public in an open budget forum Thursday night.

Only a few dozen people showed up at Alcovy High School for the system's only public forum on possible major budget reductions for the 2011-12 school year. At the meeting, NCSS leaders presented possible reductions for next school year's budget and listened to audience members who had concerns about the items.

NCSS Superintendent Gary Mathews said the system could see up to a $6.5 million reduction from local revenues, $2 to 3 million from state revenues and $1.9 million or more from the federal government, which no longer is providing stimulus funds to schools.

"We're keeping a watch on it," Mathews said. "We recognize the human pain associated with these cuts and wish we were in a different place ... but we are where we are."

Parents, teachers and other staff members, students and some community members spoke during the forum.

Several parents and students were concerned about the possible change of high school scheduling from a block schedule to a seven-period day that includes a remediation or enrichment period for students that could save the county more than $2.8 million, mainly in teacher salaries.

"You have to think about the students -- we are the future," said Chelsea Phillips, a senior at Eastside High School and student body president. "In the end, it is us that this directly affects."

She said block scheduling helps high school students get used to college schedules and allows them to go in depth on material.

"In 45 minutes (with a seven-period schedule), you don't really accomplish anything," she said.

She added that in her Advanced Placement British Literature class, they will review for 30 minutes and spend the next 60 minutes of class time to go in depth.

"And we still have homework -- a lot of it," she said, adding that she believes schools could save money by having half of a school in a set of classes for half a year and the other half of a school in the other set of classes for the other half of the year, instead of having to provide materials for all of the students all year long.

Others said that block scheduling prevents students from having multiple tests in one day and allows them to focus on a few subjects at a time.

A Newton High School math teacher said one problem with block scheduling is that a student might have a class in the fall of one semester and not have that subject again until the spring semester of the next year. An NHS administrator added that a traditional seven-period schedule would allow students to focus on subjects like math for an entire year, which they sometimes need since math builds on itself as students move through the curriculum.

Mathews said there is no conclusive research that shows that either way of scheduling is better for students.

NCSS bus drivers and parents also were concerned with the possible elimination of 44 bus driver positions, 25 substitute bus driver positions, 27 bus monitor positions and other transportation changes.

Deputy Superintendent Dennis Carpenter said bus monitors will be provided on buses that serve certain special needs students.

Other areas of concern were with the three-tier student transportation system that would create bell times for elementary schools at 7:40 a.m. to 2:10 p.m., middle schools from 9 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. and high schools 8:15 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. A couple of individuals were concerned about the late start time for middle school students, but Carpenter said it is only about a 20-minute difference from the time a student currently gets picked up or gets to school.

The changes in transportation could save nearly $1.5 million.

Other possible changes to the NCSS budget include:

* Contract with Ombudsman to provide a new model for alternative education in NCSS ($1,941,962 savings)

* Elimination of 70 six-hour-per-day regular education instructional

paraprofessional positions at the elementary schools ($1,127,000 savings)

* Reorganization and reduction of maintenance and custodial staffs ($954,000 savings)

* Shortening of the school year by one day for students and reduction of employee work days by one additional day ($950,000 savings)

* Changing school schedules to one of three choices -- Four day school week/156 school days ($820,000 savings); 158 school days with the day being lengthened by approximately 42 minutes for elementary and 52 minutes for secondary ($750,000 savings); 169 school days with the day being lengthened by approximately 20 minutes for elementary and 28 minutes for secondary ($375,000 savings)

* Elimination of 28 eight-hour-per-day regular education instructional paraprofessional positions at the elementary schools ($582,400 savings)

* Reduction of the 1 percent board contribution to the 403b retirement plan for Teachers Retirement System employees to .5 percent ($422,000 savings)

* Elimination of two assistant principal positions, one each at Newton and Alcovy High Schools, which currently have four each ($215,000 savings)

* Reduction of the number of school resource officers from 18 to 14, leaving three each at Alcovy and Newton High, two at Eastside and one at Sharp Learning Center if it continues to operate ($171,428 savings)

* Requirement of a 10 percent cut in all central office budgets ($160,000 savings)

"We have done our best to be data-driven with these cuts," Mathews said. "If it were not for the budget crisis, we would not be here."

School stakeholders have until 5 p.m. Feb. 8 to take a survey and give their input regarding possible budget cuts via the NCSS Web site, www.newtoncountyschools.org. So far, about 2,500 responses have been recorded, school officials said.

Mathews also is getting input from school councils and PTO presidents.

Afterward, system officials will weigh the input and develop a list of cuts later this month or in early March.

The Newton County Board of Education will hold a special called planning meeting at 9 a.m. Friday, Feb. 25 at the Newton County BOE Administrative Offices to discuss possible major budget reductions and other matters of interest.

The school board is expected to approve a tentative budget by May and a final budget in June; school systems in Georgia have until May 15 to extend contracts to teachers.