While the local school systems put the wraps on what was perhaps the most unusual school term in history, leadership is looking to the future with the dark cloud of the coronavirus still looming large over future plans.
The two biggest questions: will there be classroom sessions when school resumes and how much less revenue will the systems have to work with.
One thing that is certain is both Rome City and Floyd County schools are going to have to work with significantly less money — the governor has told all departments within state government to plan for a 14% budget cut.
The Georgia General Assembly will not reconvene until mid-June and is not expected to pass a state budget until sometime in July. That will leave precious little time for the local systems to finalize a budget for the 2020-2021 term that starts the first week of August.
“We’re hoping to get some ideas when (lawmakers) come back. Once we start seeing what they are talking about, then we’ll get a better feel,” Rome City Schools Superintendent Lou Byars said. “All of the districts are having to make some assumptions.”
“It’s a huge challenge right now,” said Jeff Wilson, superintendent of Floyd County Schools.
The Senate Appropriations Education Subcommittee has kicked off two weeks of hearings on the proposed 14% spending cuts to offset the revenue loss brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Some senators are pitching the idea of salary cuts for preschool teachers; others want to reduce the school year by several days.
“I am personally very much opposed to across-the-board cuts,” said Sen. Ellis Black, R-Valdosta, who chairs the education subcommittee. “I think we need to make cuts based on the needs.”
Sen. Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro, framed a teacher pay cut as a sacrifice during a tough time, without which children might suffer from fewer educational opportunities.
“Everybody has to make sacrifices on a temporary basis,” Stone said. “But we’re imposing the sacrifices on the public — and, in this case, the children.”
Wilson said he hopes the budget cut is not any deeper than 14% but he won’t be surprised if local revenue is down as well. With the closing of Georgia Power’s Plant Hammond also in consideration, Wilson said he’s looking at a potential budget hit of $10.5 million to $11 million. Byars said the loss to city schools would range from $5.5 million to $6 million.
The federal CARES Act will provide each system around $2 million, based on the number of students participating in the free or reduced price lunch program.
That’s less than 2% of the county system’s annual budget, Wilson said. As the system moved from a completely free lunch program, the number of students filling out the paperwork dropped and that changed the allocation.
Byars said federal regulation may require the city system to share some of its CARES funding with the private schools in the city. He estimated it could be as much as $250,000.
How to handle budget cuts?
“We have frozen all positions. We have positions that we will not fill and we’ll figure out how to cover those positions,” Wilson said, “When your (expenses) are 88% to 90% personnel, it’s very difficult to make those kind of cuts.”
Byars said they’re trying to make decisions that would have the least amount of impact on the classroom.
“If a classroom had 20 students, I don’t want to go to the point where we’re putting in 25, 30 students,” he said. “We want the students to not see a difference.”
An important consideration for Wilson is to not lay off anyone who currently has a job with the system.
“We’re trying to protect people and programs — but anything that is not a person or a program is on the table as far as what we may cut,” he said.
But Wilson cautioned that some programs still might not survive. He noted that the largest austerity cuts during the recession a decade ago was in the range of 10%.
“You know, 14% is a pretty huge start,” he said. “We’re looking at taking money from the fund balance and we’re looking at furloughs and other options.”
Ideas for half day sessions, with half the students coming in the morning and half in the evening, or every-other-day schedules are among the many ideas being floated as possible solutions.
Additional use of online learning is also a strong possibility, according to the two superintendents.
Both superintendents said they are making plans as if students will be turning to the various campuses in August.
The biggest challenge both face may be the transportation issue. Currently the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations call for only 11 to 16 students son a bus at any given time.
“If that is the case, we can’t have school,” Wilson said. “We’re looking at other ways to make sure we’re as safe as possible.”
“Everything is a challenge right now,” Byars said.