The Citizen reported last week that student enrollment in the Fayette County School System continues to slide down to levels not seen in more than a decade. So why are school system budgets headed up rather than down?
The answers to that question came from Superintendent Jody Barrow, Assistant Superintendent for Finance Tom Gray and school board members.
Barrow and Gray cited continuing increases in employee costs, including insurance rates and cost-of-living adjustments, as significant reasons for a rise in the cost of doing business. Of the current $184 million budget, Barrow said personnel accounts for 89 percent of the budget.
The school system has also seen an increase in the employer’s portion of the state Teachers Retirement System costs, said Gray.
Barrow said the school board has brought some of the classroom positions, both teachers and parapros, back in the past couple of years to help reduce student/teacher ratios.
Similarly, board Chairman Marion Key said the effort is being made to put staff back in place, especially in the classroom, that had been reduced during the years of the Great Recession.
“But do it strategically,” Key said, emphasizing that the board is trying to establish the same students/teacher ratios as in the past. “We’re trying to put staff back in place that we had taken out. We’re looking at the budget and putting back what we need.”
Key said another area seeing increased expenditures is in the area of preventative maintenance for which there was less money available during the recession years.
Along with Barrow and Gray, Key and the other board members cited employee costs, especially insurance costs, as taking an increasingly larger role in school system expenditures.
Noting that Fayette County remains below the top-paying school system in Georgia for classroom teachers, Barrow said, “We want to pay people well and we’re trying to stay competitive in the market place.”
Echoing the words of Barrow, board member Leonard Presberg said parents have been clear that what they want are smaller class sizes, classroom support and well-paid teachers.
Board members Diane Basham, Barry Marchman and Dan Colwell all cited healthcare and cost-of-living expenses as the primary reason that budgets are increasing.
Some of the costs experienced today, as with insurance, have been passed on by the state, said Colwell.
It was only a few years ago that the school board closed four schools in response to the financially ill-effects of the recession and plummeting enrollment.