The Chickamauga school system is also facing state funding cuts and still deciding how to soften the blow.
In fact, school systems across Georgia are being forced to take more drastic measures in the wake of so-called “austerity” cuts by state legislators totaling $1.14 billion for next school year.
Long before the “great recession,” in 2003 the state legislature began systematically making austerity cuts to school budgets, totaling a loss of $41.7 million for the Walker County school system during the past 11 years. But the majority of the cuts have come since 2010.
“We are doing the best we can in these challenging time,” said Craig Davoulas, superintendent of Walker County Public Schools.
The Walker County school system’s staff reduction will save about $2.3 million. That’s a fraction of the $7.1 million in austerity cuts to be absorbed by the annual budget, which will also be reduced by $2.7 million from the previous year, according to Phyllis Copeland, director of financial services.
“We are trying to be as efficient as possible with the number of teachers that we can have, while looking to still serve the students as we have in previous years,” Davoulas said.
Administrators analyzed each school and principals reduced staff based on projected enrollment numbers for next year, according to Eddy Combs, director of personnel.
The reduction will also increase the average classroom size by two or three students, according to Combs.
“It was very difficult. We look at our staff as people first, not as a mere number in a budget. We didn’t take this lightly,” Davoulas said.
Melody Day, superintendent for the Chickamauga school system, said she is facing the same challenges.
The Chickamauga school system has endured nearly $6 million in austerity cuts in the past 11 years and will lose more than $1 million for next year, according to Day.
“We took a double hit this year,” Day said. “We are still considering options on how to deal with the shortfalls.”
Holding the line on property taxes
Walker County school officials haven’t raised the property tax rate (often referred to as a millage rate), despite the cuts in funds, during the past five years.
The school system’s property tax rate has been lowered slightly during that time, from 17.55 mils in 2009 to 17.404 mils in 2010.
“We have always been very prudent with the taxpayers’ money,” Davoulas said.
The Walker County school system central office has the 14th lowest expenditures, relatively speaking, of 180 school systems statewide for central office expenditures, according to the Georgia Department of Education website.
Funding for new facilities
Some observers have expressed the opinion that the teacher reduction in the Walker County school system is influenced by the building of a new school in Rock Spring.
The opening of Saddle Ridge Elementary-Middle School will require the hiring of a only handful of employees next summer, as most personnel will shift from the temporary Sixth-Grade Academy in LaFayette and several other elementary schools, according to Combs.
The school is being built based on the 2007 and 2012 ESPLOST plans, after a determination that the Six-Grade Academy had to be closed as mandated by state officials.
ESPLOST funds are available for capital improvement projects, but not for any personnel salaries.
Planning for the school began seven years, said Elaine Womack, the school system’s public relations coordinator.
Smaller budgets, bigger classes
The Walker County school system’s budget has been reduced by more than 14 percent in five years — from $82. 6 million in 2009 to a projected $71.2 million in 2013. The school system’s budget year is from July through June.
To balance the budget for the current (2012) school year, $3.5 million in reserve funds was used, according to Copeland. The school system plans to balance next year’s (2013) budget with more than $4 million from reserves.
The Chickamauga school system has nearly drained a reserve fund that stood at more than $1 million a few years ago.
“We have no safety net,” Day said. “There is no fat in our budgets anymore. We are a lean mean education machine.”
Teachers in the Walker County school system had two unpaid furlough days in 2010 and seven in 2012. Next year they will have eight furlough days. Walker County teachers, on average, earn $51,552; that means teachers will lose, on average, $2,171 each in salary for the eight furlough days.
The furlough days have become a necessary way to balance the school budget as the austerity cuts have gone much deeper than when they began a decade ago, according to school officials.
Employees in the Chickamauga school system have had six unpaid furlough days for the past three years and had planned to have four days next year.
“We recently learned that we will have to increase from the four furlough days we had planned for next year,” Day said.
Rising cost of benefits
The continued rising cost of health care is also adding to the two school systems’ expenses.
Both school systems’ monthly contribution to the State Health Benefit Plan increased from $162 per non-certified employee (includes bus drivers and para-professionals but does not include teachers, who fall under different health care coverage) in 2011 to $296 in 2012. It will increase to $446 in 2013, $596 in 2014 and $746 for 2015.
In 2013 the Walker school system, which has 584 non-certified employees, that translates to an $800,000 increase. The expense will balloon to more than $2.4 million in 2015.
“There will be a point in the future where we pay as much for (non-certified employees’) benefits as we do for their salary,” Copeland said.
The Chickamauga school system will see an increase of $79,200 for 2013 and it will more than double for 2015 to $198,000 in health care cost overall, according to Day.
Some other school systems have contemplated leaving the state health benefit plan due to skyrocketing costs, Day said. Once a system leaves, it is not allowed to return, she said.