Rockdale school board considering cuts to calendar days, programs

CONYERS -- Decreasing local tax revenue may force Rockdale County Public Schools to add more furlough days, increase class sizes and the millage rate, enact a Reduction in Force and close longtime nontraditional programs like its alternative school and Early Learning Center.

The Rockdale County Board of Education is considering cuts to avoid a nearly $20 million budget deficit next school year.

Officials with RCPS reported Thursday during a special-called meeting of the board's finance committee that its deficit is expected to be even more than originally thought.

After talking with local tax officials Monday, school officials now believe that the system could face a budget deficit of more than $19 million if cuts aren't made.

RCPS Superintendent Richard Autry reported Thursday that last year, the county's tax digest was based on a negative 4 percent growth.

Last month, he said tax officials predicted this year's digest would triple to a negative 12 percent growth, which would have contributed to a $14 million budget deficit for RCPS.

Now, he said tax officials believe it will be a negative 20 percent growth, which would increase the system's deficit to nearly $20 million.

Increasing insurance costs and decreased state funding also have contributed to the anticipated deficit, officials have reported.

Overall, local revenue projections for next school year are estimated to be more than $44 million, state revenue is estimated at more than $68 million and federal revenue is estimated at less than $500,000. RCPS Chief Financial Officer Lee Davis reported that local revenue used to be more than half of the budget.

Salaries and benefits account for nearly $115 million of expenditures, which is 87 percent of the budget; non-salary expenditures, like insurance and utilities, or items that usually cannot be reduced, account for $17.6 million, Davis said.

During Thursday's committee meeting, system officials presented the board with several options that could decrease next school year's budget expenditures.

"Some of these things, they're drastic, and a lot of (the cuts) is why we've been successful," Davis admitted. "Anything we considered we want to make sure to have a minimal impact on our students."

Officials noted that the list of considerations is not final.

"Nothing is decided. We have to move forward in some direction," RCPS Superintendent Richard Autry said about why a list of possible cuts was created. "There has to be some discussion if you're going to cut $19 million. ... These are things we're discussing. I'm hopeful for solutions to bubble up -- our work is nowhere near done."The list, which was created through feedback from an internal budget committee and system reviews, includes:

-- Five calendar adjustment days for all employees ($2,602,490)

Currently, RCPS employees are experiencing three furlough days.

-- One additional calendar adjustment day for more than 200-day employees ($82,417)

These employees include principals and central office employees.

-- 10 percent central office department budget decrease ($214,650)

-- Reduction in Force of 20 central office employees (two in building and grounds, seven in transportation, a literacy coach, nine special education consultants, an early learning coordinator) ($1,020,000)

Additionally, schools now are under a hiring freeze.

Some of the reduced employees will come through attrition by retirement or resignation. Davis added that he hopes any other reductions will have employees placed in other positions.

-- Reduction of 10 instructional technology positions ($795,565)

Currently each school employs an instructional technology specialist. With the elimination of 10 positions, some schools would share specialists by geographic location.

-- Elimination of all media clerks ($497,083)

Media specialists would remain employed. Currently each school employs a media specialist and a media clerk.

-- 160-day student calendar with extended school day ($801,160)

A normal school year calendar is 190 days for teachers and 180 days for students.

Even with a shortened calendar, teachers would get five furlough days because about 20 minutes would be added to each school day, school officials said.

Officials will continue to look at other calendar options, including a four-day school week, but those options may not have as much cost savings, Davis said. Savings are seen in transportation and utilities.

-- Elimination of the nontraditional programs Open Campus, Alpha Academy alternative school and the Early Learning Center at the Rockdale Career Academy ($1,880,000)It costs $1.3 million to run Open Campus and $1.2 million to run Alpha, but some costs will be incurred when students and teachers are moved back to home schools, Davis said.

Officials said that the system has applied for two Georgia Lottery-funded prekindergarten classes at RCA but have yet to find out if they will be approved for next school year.

School officials added that the Virtual Campus program would remain open -- it actually saves the system money. Potentially in the future, it could be a revenue stream if out-of-county students pay for courses, Autry added.

-- Defer math textbook purchases ($1,000,000)

-- Increase class size ratios (22.7 to 1 at elementary schools, 28.3 to 1 at middle schools, 22.2 to 1 at high schools) ($3,080,000)

Davis noted that the class size ratios aren't necessarily actual because of additional teachers schools earn because of Title I funding and gifted learning.

All of the proposed cuts would total to nearly $12 million, so the board would still need to cut more than $7 million to avoid a deficit.

Other potential revenue sources include:

-- Partial use of fund balance (up to $3,000,000)

This year, the school board approved the use of $2.1 million to draw from the fund balance. At the end of this school year on June 30, Davis expects the fund balance to be around $9 million.

The use of part of the fund balance next year would cause the fund balance to drop to about $6 million, or 5 percent of the budget. State officials prefer school systems to have a 10 percent fund balance to use for emergencies, school officials have said.

-- 1- to 4- mill increase ($1,800,000 to $7,200,000)

-- Tentative rollback millage rate (5.2 mill increase) ($9,360,000)

Currently, the school system's millage rate is set at 24.5 mills; its legal cap is 30 mills.

Davis reported that the value of a mill has dropped from $2.8 million in 2009 to an anticipated $1.8 million this year, so even if the school board set the rate at the rollback rate, a deficit would still occur.

Davis said he doesn't know why Rockdale County seems to be more adversely impacted this year, compared to surrounding counties. He added that Rockdale continues to top the state's foreclosure list and that entire neighborhoods are being reassessed if they include a certain number of short sales and homes below market value.

"I don't know of anyone seeing a 20 percent drop in one year," he said, adding that the largest drop he's ever heard of is 12 percent. "That's a huge decrease in one year. I've never seen that."

Autry added, "It seems at every corner, there is a financial pitfall that we've not encountered before. ... Who would have predicted this long of an economic downturn for all of us? Who would have predicted this for one school district?"

Due to the changing information on revenue, Autry told the board that he was holding off on presenting a tentative budget for next school year, as he was scheduled to do this week.

"It's going to be a very difficult budget. It's the biggest deficit I've seen since I've been with Rockdale County. We've got a lot of hard work to do," Davis said. "I know we will bring you a good product."

School board attorney Jack Lance said that the school board legally must approve a final budget or a spending resolution for next school year by July 1. Autry said he anticipated presenting a budget to the board before then because schools were trying to plan for staffing allotments and schedules next year, and employees need to know the plan.

"I'm confident we'll still be in compliance with the necessary timeline," Autry said. "I'm very concerned about the potential of this budget and about the impact, first and foremost, on the young people, and second, on our staff. Not one thing on this list I want to do as superintendent."

Officials said they are trying to remain positive and develop a plan to move forward.

"We're just trying to maintain what we have," Autry said.

System officials will continue to meet together and with tax officials to determine the final outcome, and the board's budget committee may hold another called meeting later to discuss further budget developments. Additionally, the internal calendar committee is expected to meet to develop additional calendar options for next school year.

School officials planned to send a letter to staff on Friday.

"We are steadfast and we will figure this out," Autry said. "We're not sinking. We'll figure out a way, and hopefully we can keep these programs that have kept us successful."