BOE meets to discuss budget cuts

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

COVINGTON -- Members of the Newton County Board of Education met with leaders of the Newton County School System for about six hours Friday to discuss making nearly $9 million in cuts to its system budget for next school year.

Although several school board members came to an agreement on some of the proposed items, much is still on the table.

Of the $13 million in cuts that NCSS presented as possible budget cuts earlier this year, NCSS Superintendent Gary Mathews recommended to the board during the special-called work session $8.85 million in cuts.

They include:

* Change high school scheduling to a seven period day to include remediation or enrichment for students for $2,820,000 in savings.

* Contract with Ombudsman to provide a new model for alternative education in NCSS for $1,941,962 in savings. This would replace the current Sharp Alternative School program.

* Implement a three-tier student transportation system for $1,477,441 in savings, which the school board already approved at its Feb. 15 meeting.

* Reorganize and reduce maintenance and custodial staffs for $954,000 in savings.

* Eliminate 28 eight-hour per day regular education instructional paraprofessional positions at the elementary schools -- which would be two or three paraprofessionals per school -- for $582,400 in savings.

* Reduce the 1 percent board contribution to the 403b retirement plan for Teachers Retirement System employees to .5 percent for $422,000 in savings.

* Eliminate two assistant principal positions, one each at Newton and Alcovy High Schools, for $215,000 in savings and leaving each high school with four each.

* Reduce the number of school resource officers from 18 to 14, leaving three each at Alcovy and Newton High and two at Eastside for $171,428 in savings; removing another from the Sharp program if the board approves the Ombudsman program would save an additional $42,857.

* Require a 10 percent cut in all central office budgets for $160,000 in savings.

* Combine the Newton College and Career Academy CEO and the director of Career, Technical, and Agriculture Education positions for $65,000 in savings.

All of the school board members agreed through an unofficial non-binding poll on Friday that they are likely to approve the change in high school scheduling, the reduction of school resource officers, the reorganization of the maintenance and custodial staffs and the combining of the NCCA CEO and the director of CTAE positions.

"I would like to commend our principals, teachers, paraprofessionals, who put our children first," said school board Chair Almond Turner. "They are willing to make a sacrifice. ... They care for our children."

Each school board member except for Shakila Henderson Baker said they would likely approve the Ombudsman program. She said she wasn't yet sold on the program.

"I think Ombudsman may work for some students ... but I don't think it would help with all of these students," said Baker, adding that she was not comfortable with students only attending classes for four hours and conducting most of their work via the computer. "Yes, they graduate but beyond graduating, we are not teaching them to be model citizens."

She said she may approve the program if NCSS puts into place some extra measures, such as requiring the students to take career or technical programs or attend the Challenge Charter Academy in addition to participating in Ombudsman.

Mathews added that he believes the disciplined Ombudsman program would produce a better outcome than what currently is at Sharp.

"I'm hoping Ombudsman will work for more students than our alternative education program works now," he said.

Each school board member except for Jeff Meadors, who was undecided, agreed to the reduction of central office budgets.

"I feel like you had to put this on here because of public outcry," he said.

"There is pain throughout these cuts," Mathews said. "We have to have pain as well."

Board members Eddie Johnson and Abigail Coggin agreed to cut assistant principals, but the other school board members were undecided.

Only Johnson agreed with the decision to cut the paraprofessional positions.

"It's hard for me to stomach this," Coggin said.

"I just don't think that's significant," Johnson said. "I'm not saying it won't impact (the schools). I'm taking away some of their luxury."

Dr. Dennis Carpenter, deputy superintendent for operations at NCSS, said he didn't feel that paraprofessionals are a luxury -- they help in physical education, the media center and in classrooms.

Mathews did not propose:

* Eliminate 70 six-hour per day regular education instructional paraprofessional positions at the elementary schools for a $1,127,000 savings.

* Reduce the school year by one day for students and reduce employee work days by one additional day for a $950,000 savings.

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

Mathews asked for the school board to take action on some items, including the Ombudsman program and the high school scheduling, at its March 8 work session, which is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. in the board room at the Newton County BOE building at 2109 Newton Drive N.E. in Covington.

NCSS business officials also will rework some of the items the board members were undecided about to try to figure out other options for them to approve in March or as soon as possible. This includes saving paraprofessional positions by reducing their hours from eight to six, reducing the calendar year by one or two additional days or using part of an expected extra $1 million in tax revenues this year that NCSS wanted to use to purchase some new textbooks and materials, which it hasn't done for the last four years.

Carpenter said he is concerned with NCSS being a competitive employer, since neighborhood DeKalb and Rockdale counties aren't proposing any furlough days this school year and cuts are not as harsh.

The school board also looked at not providing transportation for the Ombudsman program to save $93,000. Students who are court ordered to an alternative program would be required to attend, and Carpenter said other Ombudsman centers that don't provide transportation still tend to have high attendance rates.

The board also discussed smaller cuts, such as requiring lights be turned off in each building at certain times and not allowing small appliances in classrooms, which could result in a $100,000 savings. NCSS already automatically shuts down any left on computers at certain times to reduce energy costs.

Mathews warned that NCSS officials could come to the board over the next few months to ask for even more cuts if less revenues are expected.

"Things are underway in Atlanta that could make it worse," he said. "It could be that $8.8 million will not be the end of it. We hope so, but we're not certain that it will be."