When the tentative fiscal year 2012 budget was unveiled two weeks ago by Cobb County School District officials, it was being hailed as a “good news story.”
But that positive story could possibly turn ugly if the Cobb Board of Education decides to ditch Chief Financial Officer Mike Addison’s budget plan of using $22.2 million from excess SPLOST II funds to roll back the millage rate from 20 mills to maintain its current 18.9.
After telling board members last week the budget could be headed for a “cliffhanger,” Bartlett rekindled those fears Wednesday morning during the board’s work session.
Bartlett of Post 7, Tim Stultz of Post 2 and Kathleen Angelucci of Post 4 all voted against adopting the tentative budget because they had concerns with it. Vice Chair Scott Sweeney of Post 6, David Morgan of Post 3, Lynnda Crowder-Eagle of Post 1 and David Banks of Post 5 voted for the budget.
Addison informed the board it needed to pass the tentative budget so that the district could advertise it for public approval before asking the board to legally adopt it June 8. Public hearings would be held on May 19 and May 31 in the school Central Office boardroom.
However, those plans looked like they may be in jeopardy Wednesday when Stultz said the budget was too reliant upon excess SPLOST funds.
“I look at this SPLOST money like federal stimulus dollars,” said Stultz, whose district includes Campbell High School. “How long do you use it until you address the real problem of making sure that you’re at a balance with the actual money that you’re bringing in compared to the actual expenditures?”
Bartlett then asked Superintendent Fred Sanderson what would happen if the board cut, for example, $25 million from the budget and how that would affect teacher contracts for the 2011-12 school year, which were issued last month.
“The board would have to make a decision to RIF (reduction in force) employees,” Sanderson said. “That’s the only way you could balance the budget or raise the millage. . . A certified employee would have a right to a public hearing, every one of them.”
Sanderson added that the impact of the $25 million cut would increase class sizes across the district by at least two students for each class.
Besides laying off employees, raising the millage rate and cutting programs, Crowder-Eagle asked Bartlett if the board had discussed any other ways to find budget savings. Bartlett said transportation through reduced bus routes.
“I want the public to understand that I believe that you (Addison) have looked under every rock for dollars,” said Crowder-Eagle, whose district includes Allatoona, Harrison, Kennesaw Mountain and Hillgrove high schools. “I don’t want to cut any existing programs, nor do I want to cut any teacher positions. I think we’re already working very, very hard.
"I hope that people will see that we are doing what we can to bring a balanced budget.”
Angelucci noted that surrounding districts were grappling with similar tough budget issues and acknowledged that no one wanted to make additional cuts.
“But, we also have to recognize that it is our duty to live within our means, so I think we need to look at everything,” she said.
Stultz asked Chief Human Resources Officer Donald Dunnigan how many teachers would not be renewing their contracts for next year. Dunnigan said currently about 300 teachers "communicated" that they were retiring and possibly another 150 would leave for other reasons.
Stultz also wondered about the financial savings of not filling open positions. However, Sanderson was quick to point out that option might not be feasible because it would increase class sizes and actually may cause the district to hire more teachers.
“In order to absorb that much personnel, you’ve got to raise class sizes,” Sanderson said. “You can’t pick and choose.”
Sweeney wrapped up the 13-minute discussion by reminding each board member before they voted that “modifications” could still be made to the tentative budget once they approved it. Sweeney, as he was on the 4-3 vote to approve the Lassiter High School additions and modifications project at the April 28 board meeting, appears to hold the swing vote.
The narrowness of the vote to adopt the tentative budget and the possibility of cutting a significant amount of teachers for the second straight year infuriated Cobb County Association of Educators President Connie Jackson. Last spring, the board had to cut more than 1,000 positions to shore up a $137 million budget deficit.
“I’m outraged that they’d even consider RIF’ing teachers,” she said. “We were so pleased with the budget presented and see no reason for them to start making such drastic changes. Teacher morale has suffered so much from last year’s RIF that I can’t imagine what it’ll do if they RIF.”
After the vote, SPLOST Chief Administrative Officer Doug Shepard told Patch that using excess SPLOST funds to balance the budget made sense.
“Declaring excess from the SPLOST II fund allows the district to avoid layoffs and averts a tax increase,” he said.
Although using the excess SPLOST money was utilized last year as well to maintain the 18.9 millage rate, Addison said after the meeting the country’s current economic climate has necessitated such a move. It was an unusual maneuver that Board Attorney Clem Doyle said was "legal and fair."
“These are extraordinary times and we have to take extraordinary measures,” said Addison, a 28-year school district employee.