School closings on the table for Fayette School Board


Money is tight, and school enrollment is stagnant or falling. So the Fayette County Board of Education met Aug. 1 to talk about what to do about a shortfall of $9-10 million at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year next July.

Among the ideas to increase revenues: Let out-of-county students pay tuition to attend Fayette schools, plus aggressively rent out school facilities after-hours to churches, civic and other groups.

To cut expenses, the board heard ideas about mothballing up to two elementary schools and redistricting the remaining schools’ attendance zones, always a hotly controversial step.

The board also proposed an online survey to determine the community’s views on closing one or two elementary schools and shortening the school year.

The stage for the meeting was set by the financial situation in which the Fayette County School System is currently positioned. For the Fayette County BoE the 2012-2013 school year is directly tied to the current year that began July 1.

The school board in June used approximately $16 million of the estimated $25 million fund balance as of June 30 to adopt the $186.66 million budget for the 2011-2012 school year that began in July. Revenues this year are estimated at $170.2 million, leaving an estimated fund balance on June 30, 2012 of approximately $8.6 million.

So unless revenues show a marked increase or expenditures between now and next June 30 are trimmed substantially the board will potentially be faced with coming up millions of dollars short and being unable to balance the budget for next year.

That is the situation and that is why, following a previous instruction by the board to begin the series of meetings, Superintendent Jeff Bearden noted that the goal, likely with a combination of added revenues and lowered expenses, is to come up with $9-10 million that would enable the board to have the resources to adopt a balanced budget next June.

In the discussion Monday night the board began preparing for next year by hearing a number of ideas that could accomplish the fiscal goal. All were clearly stated as possibilities and all will require further discussion. And all were tempered with the understanding that other variables might be considered as the process unfolds.

Among the possibilities for enhancing revenue were charging tuition to out-of-county students qualified to attend Fayette schools and engaging a more aggressive stance in renting school system facilities.

The discussion noted that the tuition amount charged to parents of out-of-county students, based on the equivalent of the local property tax share, would have to be determined. The portion of funding through state dollars would also come to the school system, though likely not totally within the specific 2012-2013 school year since there is lag time built into the way enrollment is calculated by the state and includes a portion of two school years.

If approved, the school system would have to determine the eligibility requirements for out-of-county students. It was also clear that, if approved, those students would not be able to attend Fayette schools that are at capacity.

Pertaining to increased revenue from facility rentals, Community School Director Ed Steil said drivers education, rental by colleges and the numerous camps held on school property generate substantial funds, adding that drivers education had seen a three-year downturn but had picked up substantially over the summer.

As for decreasing costs, the initial topics discussed included the possibility of closing one or two elementary schools and using Rivers Elementary as a K-5 school, reducing the number of staff through attrition if enrollment continues to decline and reducing the number of days in the school year to save on utility costs.

Bearden said closing two elementary schools and using Rivers Elementary, aside from the resulting redistricting that would be required, would save approximately $800,000 annually in utility costs.

Bearden suggested, and the board agreed, that the school system hire a demographer from the University of Georgia at a cost of $6,000 to provide a 10-year systemwide forecast of enrollment and potential enrollment zones. The demographer should have the work completed in the fall.

Citing an example of savings from staff cuts if enrollment continues to fall, Bearden said reducing staff by 50 positions across the board would save approximately $3.2 million.

On the suggestion pertaining to saving money by shortening the school year, Bearden said there are two potential methods of approach. One of those would have a Labor Day to Memorial Day schedule with a longer school day of perhaps 45 minutes while the other involved maintaining the same calendar that is currently employed and reducing the number of school days per week from five to four.

Aside from costs on utility expenses, personnel such as food service staff, bus drivers and parapros would be affected, Bearden said.

The board agreed that a survey would be devised and posted on the school system‘s website to obtain feedback on the ideas of closing schools and reducing the number of school days per year. The survey is expected to be presented to the school board for review and possible approval at the Aug. 15 meeting.

Also at the meeting, board member Marion Key noted that the stated items, even if eventually approved, would fall substantially short of the $9-10 million goal.

And board member Janet Smola echoed the sentiments of others at previous meetings saying that pay cuts should only be used as a measure of last resort.

Referencing the point at which the final determination should be made on the various adjustments for next year, Smola thought the drop-dead date should come after mid-term while Chairman Bob Todd thought before Christmas would be more appropriate.

It was obvious at the meeting that the issues brought forward served as the starting point for the discussion that will likely take months to resolve. Depending on what is found, that discussion could lead to the consideration of additional measures that will require action to keep the school system operating within the state requirement to have a balanced budget.