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RCPS: Furlough days, no pay increases next year

CONYERS -- School officials say staffers should expect furlough days and no pay increases next school year.

Officials with Rockdale County Public Schools anticipate more state revenue for next school year than originally expected, but the system may still experience more than a $14 million shortfall if it doesn't make cuts due to increased expenses and reduced local revenue.

The Rockdale County Board of Education's finance committee met Thursday, when members were briefed by school officials on the latest budget projections.

RCPS Chief Financial Officer Lee Davis said the system expects to receive about $3 million more from the state than it previously estimated. A recalculated insurance increase should cost about $850,000, instead of more than $1 million, as earlier expected.

Additionally, he expects this school year's ending fund balance to be about $9 million, instead of the expected nearly $8 million.

However, Davis is still concerned about decreasing revenue from local property taxes.

He said the decrease could be more than $5 million. He had previously thought it would be about $3 million, but property tax appeals can make that figure increase.

"It's our largest unknown," he said. "That's a very scary unknown."

"I'm afraid it's going to be more with all of the appeals," said school board member Wales Barksdale.

Davis and RCPS Superintendent Richard Autry said they have plans to meet with local tax officials, and state officials will provide another revenue update later this month.

"We still have a lot of concerns with balancing the budget," Davis said. "We still have a lot of work to do."

He said the largest cut that RCPS is expected to recommend to the school board for next school year will be that no salary increases will be given, which will save nearly $2 million.

"With the situation we're in ... we don't feel in good faith we can give those to our employees," Davis said.

He also expects to introduce staff reduction days, which save about $500,000 each; he said he wasn't sure yet how many days staff could be reduced next school year.

"Ninety percent of our budget is salaries and fringe benefits. You have to cut positions or the number of days or a combination thereof," Davis said.

Previously, school officials said they need to hire more teachers because of recent student growth.

Davis said the internal budget committee -- which is made up of two elementary school principals, Sherrod Willaford at C.J. Hicks Elementary School and Tammy Hightower at Flat Shoals Elementary School; one middle school principal, Andrea McMahan at Memorial Middle School; and one high school principal, Tonya Bloodworth at Salem High School; as well as the superintendent's cabinet members -- plans to meet this week to develop a few reduction options to present to Autry and the school board for approval.

"We've always found a way to somehow figure it out," Autry said to school board members Thursday. "I'm very concerned with a $14 million deficit that we have to look for. I'm extremely concerned where that comes from. We cannot increase class sizes; $14 million will impact programs and services to students, there's no doubt about it. I hate to say that as your superintendent. We have to mitigate that."

He said it's worse that the financial crisis hasn't lasted longer than one or two years.

"It doesn't end," Autry said. "I'm very concerned about the budget I'm going to bring to you. I'm an instructional superintendent -- I want to make sure our teachers have the best resources possible. It's going to be difficult to provide the resources we are used to."

He told school board members to bring to system administrators any ideas they have to cut the budget.

"We now more than ever have to be bonded together ... to provide a quality education to our students," Autry said. "We have to look at everything we can."

Barksdale asked how much a 1 mill increase in property taxes would generate for RCPS, which Davis said could vary between $1.9 million and $2.1 million. The current millage rate is 24.5 mills, and the rate cap legally is set at 30 mills.

Fellow board member Sharon Pharr also asked about the percentage of the budget that superintendent's cabinet members make. Davis said Friday that their salaries are 0.69 percent of the total budget and 1.04 percent of the total salaries.

"Everybody in the county thinks they can fix the budget by firing the entire central office, but it's really just a drop in the bucket," said Brad Smith, vice chair of the school board.

Davis said Thursday that Rockdale earns funding for one superintendent and six assistant superintendents, but RCPS has one superintendent, the equivalent of four assistant superintendents and two executive directors as part of the cabinet.

Board member Katrina Young asked about departments operating at a lower level instead of at 100 percent, and board member Mandy North asked about shopping around for insurance and if there are other services to outsource, like the janitorial services were this school year.

Davis said that school officials are looking at options like outsourcing as long as it saves money and provides a quality product.

"We also are looking at ways to be more efficient," Davis said. "It's open to everything. ... We're trying to do everything as efficiently as we can. ... It's a difficult budget."

Officials plan to present a proposed budget to the board May 9 at a finance committee meeting and board work session, and the board is expected to adopt a tentative budget May 16 at its monthly meeting.

The next public meeting for budget discussions is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday, June 13, in the board room at the RCPS central complex.

The board is expected to approve a final budget on June 14; it legally must adopt a budget by June 30.The board is expected to adopt a millage rate in July or August, depending on when final tax figures are available.