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Superintendent tackles budget concerns
Board to approve budget in June
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About 75 parents, teachers and students braved the rainy weather Thursday night to attend a budget forum hosted by Newton County School Superintendent Dr. Gary Mathews and other school system officials, in an effort to voice their concerns and hear a more thorough explanation of the $9 million worth of potential cuts to the 2011-2012 budget.

After an introduction from Mathews, Deputy Superintendent for Operations Dr. Dennis Carpenter gave the audience an overview of the system’s current financial situation. During the presentation he touched on the fact that Newton County has not received roughly $30 million in the last five years from the state of monies earned from Quality Basic Education funds, and that property taxes have essentially remained the same since 2006, although the county has grown by approximately 2,000 students in that time.

Mathews then ran through the list of 13 potential cuts to the budget, what those cuts would mean and how much they could save the system before opening the meeting to the public. While members of the

audience took turns speaking, Mathews and Carpenter could be seen taking notes on the questions asked.

Questions ranged from a teacher who wanted to know when things would get better for her and her fellow educators, who have faced pay freezes and cuts to how much the system pays toward their health benefits, to students who were concerned with a switch to a seven-period day from block scheduling.

Several bus drivers and parents of special needs children expressed their concerns that cuts to the transportation system would eliminate bus monitors on special education buses, and some questioned the proposed switch that would eliminate Sharp Learning Center and implement Ombudsman as alternative education for Newton County students referred there for a variety of reasons.

After listening to all questions, Mathews and Carpenter provided answers for the majority. Parents and bus drivers of special needs students were assured that if children needed a bus monitor per their IEP they would have one, and questions about transportation and building costs associated with Ombudsman were put to rest as well (transportation will be provided by the school system and the alternative school operates out of store-front buildings so there would be no need to build another school).

A rumor of guns found at Alcovy High School was debunked and the students who had concerns with a switch from block scheduling were told by teachers and an assistant principal that a seven-period day had worked best at other schools and had shown an increase in test scores amongst students. Mathews admitted there was no concrete proof of which system worked better, but those familiar with both seemed in favor of a switch.

He also reminded those in attendance that the system was facing a possible cut of $6.5 million locally and up to $3 million from the state, with another nearly $2 million cut in federal stimulus funds that will run out after this year.

"We recognize the human pain associated with these cuts and we wish we were in a different place," said Mathews. "But we are where we are… If it were not for the budget crisis, we would not be here."

Mathews reminded those in attendance that the stakeholders survey which can be found at will remain open until 5 p.m. Feb. 8. So far, about 2,500 people have taken the survey and he said that officials will release the results shortly after the survey comes to a close.

The Board of Education is scheduled to approve a tentative budget in May and they have until May 15 to extend teacher contracts. The final budget must be approved in June. The board will hold its February work session at 7 p.m. Tuesday and are scheduled to talk more about three-tier transportation and to hear from officials at Union Grove High School about a seven-period day with a focus period.