Budget survey says cut Fayette’s school year to save money

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Don’t bring in tuition-paying out-of-county students to Fayette County schools, a plurality of survey takers told the Board of Education.

Close to half the online survey respondents said the system should instead chop days off the school calendar to produce budget savings.

One thing that some parents from Brooks and Tyrone elementary schools agreed on: Don’t close our community schools to balance your budget.

Of the more than 5,000 survey takers, more than one in every four identified themselves as school system employees.

Superintendent Jeff Bearden reported on the survey results at the Sept. 19 meeting of the Board of Education.

Bearden said that survey participants were asked to choose among budget-balancing solutions, including allowing out of county students to pay tuition to attend Fayette schools, closing two elementary schools and one middle school and making changes to the school year.

The most preferred of the questions was reducing the number of school days in the academic year while the least preferred was allowing out-of-county students.

A number of people at the meeting making public comments did so on items included in the survey. Front and center were groups from Brooks and Tyrone who insisted that the elementary schools in their towns remain open.

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 school board the ability to abide by state law and adopt a balanced budget that begins July 1.

Three of the survey questions — reducing the days in the school year and the potential closure of two elementary school and one middle school — pertained to expense reduction issues while the idea of allowing qualified out-if-county students would be a potential way to generate needed revenues.

There were a total of 5,413 responses to the survey, with 21.4 percent being the parent of an elementary student, 16.5 percent being the parent of a middle school student, 17 percent being the parent of a student at a different level and 11.6 percent were community members with no children in the school system. Beyond that, 26.1 percent were employed by the school system.

The idea of having qualified out-of-county students pay several thousand dollars in tuition to attend Fayette schools was opposed by 44.1 percent of respondents while 22.4 percent said they agreed with the idea. Nearly 20 percent said they were unsure but probably agreed while nearly 14 percent said they were unsure but probably disagreed.

If eventually approved and assuming that an interest exists, each out-of-county student would likely generate $3,000-4,000 in revenue.

As for shortening the academic year by reducing the number of days in the school calendar, 47.5 percent agreed while 20 percent disagreed. Meantime, 21.8 percent hedged toward the reduction while 10.7 percent leaned against the idea.

Cost savings for shortening the school year would include a savings of $21,408 per day in transportation costs and $17,638 per day in utility costs.

The idea of closing one unnamed middle school had the agreement of 35.9 percent of respondents while 27.3 percent disagreed. Of those unsure, 21.9 percent leaned toward closure while 14.9 percent likely preferred the school remain open.

Closing one middle school would save approximately $1 million per year.

The final topic, that of closing two unnamed elementary schools and opening Rivers Elementary, found more agreement than disagreement. Approximately 40 percent of respondents agreed with closing the schools and 19.3 percent were unsure but probably agreed. On the opposite side, 30.6 percent disagreed and 10.3 percent were unsure but probably disagreed.

Closing two elementary schools and opening Rivers would generate approximately $800,000 in savings.

And it was the idea of potentially closing two elementary schools that drew a number of people to the Sept. 19 meeting. Some of those took to the podium during the public comments portion of the meeting. The consensus was easily identifiable. Members of the Tyrone and Brooks communities were insistent that their schools are an integral part of the respective communities and should not be targeted for potential closure.

There were also a number of other comments that accompanied that insistence. Brooks resident Donna New suggested that the survey was not clearly representative of the school system and should either be re-administered or disregarded.

Tyrone resident Melissa Hill questioned the county of residence of survey respondents. She said the schools in Tyrone and Brooks should remain open, adding that the more populated cities such as Fayetteville could handle the closure more easily than the smaller communities of Brooks and Tyrone.

Still others during public comments advocating for the schools in Brooks and Tyrone to stay open suggested taking back teacher’s recently restored pay and instituting a merit-based system for raises, eliminating positions at central office and not allowing out-of-county employees to bring their children to Fayette schools.

Yet another Brooks resident in advocating for her community’s school to remain open said that, if closed, her daughter would likely have to attend a Title 1 school (federal assistance tied to lower income levels) and would be at risk.

In a related matter and based on the apparent support for shortening the school year, Bearden got approval from the school board to work up a mock calendar to get a closer look at specific savings. The mock calendar will be presented at an upcoming board meeting.

Meantime, the school system and the school board has until June to find the solution to the $10 million question of where to cut sufficient expenses and/or increase revenues in order to be able to adopt the state-required balanced budget that begins July 1.

Yet to be discussed are other cost saving measures such as reductions in central office staff and the various program administrators and, as in the case of bus drivers and assistant principals, retaining only the number of those positions paid for by the state.

Though now complete, the survey represents only the initial stage of what could easily become a fall, winter and perhaps even a spring full of meetings aimed at making fiscal decisions.

Fayette County for decades rode the wave of economic expansion where more money flowed in increasingly year after year. But today, declining state dollars from declining enrollment and falling local revenues from a tax digest that has seen a 12 percent drop in the county’s value in the past two years represents a recipe for tough decisions to come.