The Cherokee County School Board next week will hold the first public hearing on its proposed fiscal year 2014-15 budget.
The hearing will be held during the board's meeting on Thursday, June 19, which starts at 7 p.m. at the Historic Canton High School/School Board Auditorium in downtown Canton.
Additional public budget hearings will be held at 11 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 9 and 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 23, at the auditorium. The board will vote on the proposed budget at 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 23.
In his final recommendation, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Frank Petruzielo has included all of the proposed restored and improved services previously shared with the school board, parents and the community at large, as well as expansion of his initial class-size reduction plans to two additional grades: Grades 4 and 5.
Since the district several years ago began to suffer the "annual one-two punch" of state austerity budget cuts and a dramatic reduction in local property tax digest, the superintendent notes the school board set three priorities to address once the revenue outlook began to improve: reinstate the 180-day school calendar for students, eliminate employee furlough days and decrease class size.
Last school year, the district returned to a 180-day calendar for students and reduced employee furlough days to three.
For the proposed budget, Dr. Petruzielo said he is "pleased' to report the district can not only hold onto those 180 days for students, but also eliminate the remaining furlough days. Initially, preliminary local tax digest numbers indicated the district could reduce class sizes for kindergarten through third-grade.
Now, the superintendent said the district can go further and do the same for fourth and fifth-grade classes, "which should be very welcome news for students, parents and teachers.”
The general fund, which is the district's day-to-day operating budget and the largest fund in the total budget, is proposed at $347.7 million, up from $321.1 million last school year. The fund now has revenue available to hire additional teachers to reduce class size and to accommodate projected growth, as well as to hire additional bus drivers and school police officers and restore and increase other critically needed services.
The decreases in class size and other program/service improvements are possible without raising the operating budget’s millage rate, as the local tax digest has grown by an estimated 10 percent (prior to appeals and other adjustments, which will likely result in a final actual increase closer to 7 percent); and the superintendent notes state austerity budget cuts have been "significantly" reduced by Gov. Nathan Deal and the Georgia General Assembly for the first time in several years.
Some property owners will see higher tax bills, but only if the value of their property significantly increased, according to the district. It should also be noted that the total value of the digest is now near the same level as it was in 2006, while the school district has enrolled an additional 4,400 students since that time.
With the millage rate, Dr. Petruzielo is recommending the board eliminates the debt service tax, which is set at .4 mills. Dr. Petruzielo said, as the related bond debt has been retired, he is recommending that the board end the tax as a “promise kept” to voters.
The building fund, which is funded by bonds repaid using Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (Ed SPLOST), is proposed at $88.8 million, down from $94.6 million last school year.
Projects funded by this budget include construction of the new/replacement Dean Rusk Middle School, renovations to the Cherokee High School athletic complex and the opening of a new parent entrance at Carmel Elementary School to enhance safety and traffic flow.
Dr. Petruzielo said he’s optimistic that, if the local tax digest continues to see steady growth and the governor and state legislature restore the $17 million in earned state funding still being withheld due to austerity budget cuts, further reductions in class size will be possible for the 2015-16 school year.
Full restoration of earned funding next year would allow the district to hire an additional 250 teachers and return class size for all grades back to pre-recession levels. It also could enable: the purchase of additional needed instructional resources (the first new textbooks in six years and more digital content); avoidance of additional outsourcing of classified staff due to predicted, significant State Health Benefit Plan cost increases for employers and employees; restoration of budget reserves to state-recommended levels and, possibly, allow for an operating millage rate tax break.
“For the coming school year, we’re finally able to take some positive steps to trim class size for elementary school grades, and that’s a good thing; but it doesn’t get us back to 2006 class size, and it doesn’t allow us to make a dent in middle and high school class size,” the superintendent stated. “We need the governor and state legislature to build upon what they started this year with ‘austerity budget cut’ reductions and show the people of Georgia that public education and the future of Georgia’s children truly is their top priority.”
Highlights from the superintendent’s proposed fiscal year 2014-15 budget:
- Reduce property taxes by eliminating general obligation bond millage rate (.4 mills = $2.5 million); no increase in current maintenance & operation (M&O) millage rate;
- Hire 69 additional teachers to reduce class size at elementary (K-5) grade levels;
- Hire 196 additional teachers to reflect student population growth and to fill vacancies created by attrition;
- Restore school nurse hours to six hours (from 5.5 hours) per day;
- Restore school police staffing levels to reflect student population growth/additional schools;
- Add 10 bus drivers to address growth, improve efficiency and reduce ride time for students;
- Provide a one-half teacher (graduation coach) allotment at each high school dedicated to credit recovery/helping students stay on track for graduation;
- Implement automated substitute teacher scheduling system for classroom teachers to utilize on a daily basis;
- Pilot a school entry door security system in one innovation zone;
- Establish an emergency parent notification system — for phone, text and email alerts;
- Eliminate employees’ remaining three furlough days — to restore full work calendars and reduced pay for all employees… for the first time since 2008-09;
- Fund annual longevity step increases for eligible employees;
- Fund a 1% cost-of-living raise for all employees, the first in five years; and,
- Use remaining funds to begin restoring budget reserves.