Fayette schools facing big changes, big choices


Fayette County School System officials soon will be surveying parents to see how many will support required cost-cutting through a fundamental re-ordering of how public school is conducted:

• Shut down two elementary schools and maybe a middle school.

• Start school after Labor Day and end before Memorial Day.

• Change to a four-day school week.

• Bring in qualified out-of-county students and charge them tuition.

Unstated but intrinsic to some of the changes would be widespread redrawing of school district attendance lines, sometimes a controversial experience for parents and students who must switch schools.

Any one of those would be a sea change for students, parents and teachers in the Fayette system. But the Board of Education is having to plan for unprecedented declines in both school funding and student enrollments.

Fayette County residents in the coming weeks should expect to see a survey on the Fayette County School System’s website that will be asking for public input on the changes. The reason for the community survey is directly related to the millions of dollars that must be either raised for next year or cut from the budget to give the board the ability to abide by state law and adopt a balanced budget that begins July 1.

The reason to suggest a number of potential changes that are essentially new to the school system is a direct result of the continued decrease in funding. Years of unparalleled local growth and the revenues that went with it have ended, and with it comes the reality that the board must find somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million in either increased revenues and/or cuts in expenses by the time the 2012-2013 budget is adopted next spring. Without it the board cannot adopt a state-required balanced budget.

The school system already has hit the mandated property tax ceiling of 20 mills, and thus has no room to raise taxes.

The draft version of the Fiscal Year 2013 Budget Considerations Survey presented at the last school board meeting resulted in a number of questions and concerns by board members. That conversation will be continued at a called meeting to be held on Aug. 29, likely in the early afternoon hours. As it stands today, all of the draft survey questions are up for discussion by the board.

The cost-cutting and revenue generating measures thus far proposed include four issues for consideration.

One likely survey question pertains to the idea of closing two elementary schools in order to open Rivers Elementary on Sandy Creek Road as a K-5 school, though there was some brief discussion about the potential for closing a middle school.

Any closures would come with two aspects. On the one hand, closing two schools would save the school system approximately $800,000 per year. On the other, closures would require that school boundaries be re-worked.

High schools are currently at 90 percent capacity while elementary schools, with two closures, would be at 90 percent capacity. Middle schools are currently at 70 percent capacity, so closing one would result in 90 percent capacity, the board was told.

The issue with capacity is that Fayette County’s student enrollment has been falling since 2007 and that decrease appears to be continuing this school year. Enrollment today is close to the level it was in 2002.

Two measures are essentially joined since both involve significant changes to the school year. One idea would have the school year begin after Labor Day and end before Memorial Day while the other would have the school system move to a four-day school week that would have the year begin in August and end on the Friday before Memorial Day. Both models would see approximately 45 minutes of instructional time added to the school day.

The positive side of the Labor Day to Memorial Day model would come in savings of approximately $490,000 in transportation costs and $575,000 in utility costs. The negative side of the model would translate into the potential for increased childcare costs for parents in August.

The positive side of the four-day model would come in savings of approximately $680,000 in transportation costs and approximately $650,000 in utility costs. The negative side of the four-day model may increase childcare costs for parents throughout the year.

And a fourth idea would be to allow qualified out-of-county students to attend Fayette schools provided they pay a tuition equal to what county taxpayers contribute. The proposal includes that idea that only schools that have available seat space would be open to tuition students.

Qualifications for attendance are proposed to include meeting both academic and behavioral guidelines.

As for the financial impact, that number is currently unknown since it would depend on the number of students accepted for enrollment. That said, what is known is that the state funds, approximately $4,000 per student per year, would follow the students to Fayette County. The other portion, the balance of the $7,000-8,000 of total revenue, would be expected to be made up by the tuition charge.

The school board will continue discussing the proposed survey on Aug. 29. The board will meet in executive session at 11:30 a.m. and is expected to move immediately into open session.