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Funding, class size top worries
School officials huddle with legislators
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Forsyth County News

The Forsyth County Board of Education is bracing for a state budget that includes substantial drops in school funding.

In addition to internal cuts, part of the board's plan to deal with the expected shortfall includes a list of requests and initiatives for state legislators to consider when they reconvene in January.

School Superintendent Buster Evans, Chief Financial Officer Dan Jones and the board shared their concerns with three members of Forsyth's state legislative delegation during a recent meeting.

The group discussed a variety of issues, ranging from impact fees and tax relief to growth and capital outlay preferences.

Topping the list was more flexibility, both in class sizes and programs. With five new schools slated to open in 2009, Jones said some relief from the state's class size mandate could provide substantial savings.

"With that flexibility, we could possibly open those schools and not have to hire any new people or new teachers," he said. "We're looking at saving a couple hundred teachers."

Evans said the savings could total anywhere from $4 million to $6 million.

Board member Tom Cleveland said the system is working on a report for legislators, which will provide insight into operations and the impact of state mandates.

"We're looking for the mandates, looking for where we're spending a lot of money that's not getting a lot of gain," he said. "We want to bring that to you ... so you understand the flexibilities we need in the mandates."

The report would be useful, said state Rep. Tom Knox, adding that when officials votes on legislation, "We know what the bill says, but we don't know how that's going to affect everybody."

Knox was joined at the annual legislative meeting Dec.12 by fellow Cumming Republicans state Sen. Jack Murphy and state Rep. Mark Hamilton.

School officials understand the need for budget cuts in hard economic times, but Jones expressed concern over how hard Forsyth could be hit.

He cited a homeowner tax relief grant, totaling about $3.8 million of the school's budget, which Gov. Sonny Perdue has held up.

"If we don't get it, that's going to be that much more of a hole in our budget," Jones said. "The governor's already asked us to cut 2 percent, so we're looking at about $5 million that we were counting on when we passed this budget.

So it's very important that we get that money, because I don't know where we're going to make up that kind of deficit.

"What we don't want is to be hit with a 2 percent reduction, not get the homeowner tax relief grant and then not be able to get our midterm adjustment."

Though open to funding options, Evans seemed reluctant to pass any tax increases to county residents.

"How much are we going to rely on ad valorem taxes at the local level to fund education ... and at what point does that then become a disincentive," he said, adding the school system's ability to maintain a low millage rate has been "one of the wonderful things in Forsyth County."

District 27 state Sen. Jack Murphy, noted the school district is facing problems larger than the rapid growth it experienced in recent years.

"We haven't worried about this because we've had all this growth coming in, and all these people coming in and paying taxes. Now that's slowed down and come to a stop," he said.

District 23 state Rep. Mark Hamilton complimented officials on their handling of finances. "You've done a very good job," he said.