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Backseat budget
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If you thought you were the only one feeling financial strain, think again. The state is in the midst of a budget crisis and in July, Gov. Sonny Perdue asked all state funded agencies to cut 3.5 percent from the 2009 budgets. Since then, that number has jumped to 6 percent across the board with the possibility for more in 2010.

 On the outset, one of the easiest places to save money is also one that can potentially affect the future of our society. Based on percentage of allotted funds, education accounts for more than half the state's budget. As it stands, the state looks to fall approximately $1.6 billion short of its projected $19 billion revenue goal.

Newton County School System

As the books close on FY2008, the Newton County School System begins to use funds from its FY 2009 budget, which the Board of Education approved at last month's work session. The district is set to operate with a $161 million budget, $10 million of which carried over from FY 2008.

 The majority of operating revenue the district uses comes from the QBE (Quality Basic Education) funds. The state uses a complex formula to calculate what each county district receives based on student enrollment. Part of the state's money is derived from federal funding - roughly 7 percent. But the state continues to short the school districts through what are know as austerity reductions. In what seems to be a reoccurring theme, the state once again shorted the district more than $1.5 million in 2008.

 Since 2006, the state has made more than $6 million in austerity cuts in Newton County. That's $6 million the county was entitled based on the QBE formula and student enrollment. But Newton County isn't alone. The NCSS is one of 180 school districts in the state that finds itself on the short end of the stick when it comes to QBE funding.

Fortunately, education funding looks like it won't take the full brunt of the shortfall as the state has said the 6 percent cuts would not apply to the QBE (Quality Based Education) funds each school district receives.

In a conference call with Georgia Department of Education officials last week, Assistant Superintendent for Administrative Services Deborah Robertson said the county learned the state will cut state funds by 2 percent. While the county recently learned of the cuts, the shortage was not anticipated when officials worked up the FY2009 budget. The state could not give a definitive answer as to where the cuts would come from.

"We knew when we were preparing the 2009 budget that we were going to get the austerity cuts of slightly more than $1 million," Roberts said at Tuesday's work session. "The news that was shared with us last week relative to the new cuts coming in was something that was not anticipated and was not planned for in the 2009 budget."

The county receives midterm adjustments funds, again based on enrollment changes, but Robertson said the state could not say either way whether to expect less midterm money as well.

"We don't know what is going to happen there," Robertson said of the midterm adjustment. "My anticipation is that we may also see a 2 percent reduction in midterm monies as well. We don't know at this point."

The cuts may not end there. A special session of the General Assembly could vote to reduce or eliminate the Homeowners Tax Relief Grant (total grants come in at $428 million in FY2009). Robertson said that could translate into another $4 million in cuts should that happen.

"We could be possibly looking at a $6 million hit on our budget which would mean our general fund would be out of balance $6 million," added Robertson.

On top of it all, the county learned the state will cut an additional 1 percent in FY2010.

Even before the news of any funding cuts, the NCSS must find a way to make up for rising fuel prices. The county purchased fuel in June for an average cost of $4.17 a gallon. That's an increase of $1.38 per gallon over fuel purchased in June 2007. When officials drew up the 2009 budget, they accounted for $3.50 per gallon when calculating transportation costs. A quick look at the math shows they are already looking at a deficit in transportation costs.

Deborah Robertson said the state allows the county to move around 5 percent of its operating revenues to offset costs such as rising fuel prices. But robbing Peter to pay Paul can only go so far. Considering the costs have already risen 67 cents and with the district only beginning to dip into FY2009 funds, the uncertainty has the county working closely with the school to eliminate unnecessary spending.

"We are working to limit our expenditures as much as possible," Robertson said. "We are asking everyone that approves a purchase order to see if it is absolutely necessary for instruction or the safety of our students."

Robertson added the belt tightening doesn't mean purchases will be turned away arbitrarily. Rather she hopes the schools and administrators will weigh the costs and thoroughly think out all purchases.

Over the past several months, in the wake of rising transportation costs, and now with budget cuts looming, school officials have been forced to rethink their bus system. During the school year, officials asked principals to limit field trips and reevaluate long distant sporting trips. But with the news that the state will cut at least an additional 2 percent or $2 million, the county has asked each school to limit all field trips to only certain lottery pre-K trips. In addition, the county has asked freshman and junior varsity sporting trips be scheduled closer to home.

So far teacher's raises are not affected. According to Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle's office, the state will defer state employee raises. However, teachers as well as educators in the University System as well as Department of Technical or Adult Education will still receive their raises due to contractual obligations.


The NCSS isn't the only local education system affected by the proposed cuts. Mike Light, executive director of communications for the Technical College System of Georgia said DeKalb Technical College could be forced to look at its budget as well.

"Nothing's been finalized yet," Light said of any possible moves to save money. "Everything we begin with is a question of how it's going to affect our students."

Like the NCSS, DeKalb Tech depends on a large budget to operate its campuses. Light said several areas can be pinched and spending across the board can be tightened up before any programs are cut.

"First we're going to look to reduce spending on new purchases, repairs and maintenance," Light said. "We're looking to cut back on travel and freezing new hiring."

Some of the larger areas that could reduce spending include programs that typically don't attract a large amount of students.

"We're also looking at low enrollment low performing programs we may consider closing some of those, only if enrollment is such it doesn't make sense to keep them running," Light added.

A money saving possibility could be in the area of class scheduling. Light said they will look into the possibility of four-day work and class weeks as well as the possibility of closing as much of campus down as possible on Fridays.

"Anything more than a 6 percent budget cut is going to be tough," Light said. "Six percent we can meet--8 to 10 percent cuts could start affecting jobs or positions. We're hoping for the best."

Light said everything is on the table and all possibilities will be considered. The new Public Safety Academy pilot program scheduled to start in January 2009 at the Newton campus, looks to be safe.

"I do not think the cuts should impact that," he said. "That's a very important program we want to see moving forward. The ramifications of that program, helping improve the law enforcement folks and helping them move on with degrees, it's an important thing to the students and public safety in Georgia."

 Michelle Kim contributed to this story