Cobb school officials propose furlough days, online classes to address $86 million deficit

To close an $86.4 million budget deficit, Cobb County school administrators propose shifting a large portion of high school classes into online courses, cutting five days from the school year, eliminating transportation to several thousand students and giving district staff five furlough days.

This is the sixth year the district has made drastic spending reductions, largely because of deep state austerity cuts and lowered property tax revenue. State law doesn’t allow a school district to run a deficit.

“You can get a lot of nickels and dimes out of the cushion, but that’s not going to get you to $86 million,” Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said. “To get to that big of a number, you have to look at where your big numbers are. It’s with a lot of regret that we present this to you, but the facts are the facts.”

Last year, in order to meet a $62 million budget deficit, the district gave its staff two furlough days, eliminated 350 teaching positions and spent $28.2 million in reserve funds, among other things.

The administrators, made up of Cobb budget and academic leaders, are predicting $807.6 million in revenue and $894 million in expenditures next year.

Thursday night’s proposal was increased by $6 million after administrators learned of increased health insurance and retirement costs for teachers. It could change, depending on what happens at the state Legislature next week.

The proposal is likely to draw the ire of parents and teachers in the coming weeks.

“This is a very difficult situation you’re in,” Hinojosa told board members. “Whenever you’re facing cuts of up to 10 percent of your budget, you’re going to have to have a very difficult conversation.”

The administrators proposed 13 ways in all to cut the budget. Other options included outsourcing janitor services, laying off several school and central office staff and not giving salary increases to remaining employees.

Administrators emphasized they avoided laying off teachers, closing schools, and eliminating music, art and kindergarten programs — actions taken by several surrounding districts in recent years.

School board members, several of whom seemed impressed with the creativity of some proposals, such as expanding online learning, are expected to vote on the cuts in May. They encouraged administrators to go back to teachers and principals to find additional ways to save money.

Administrators proposed spending $22.2 million in reserve funds next year.

As part of an initiative to turn traditional classrooms into online classrooms, administrators envisioned turning entire hallways into computer labs and having students’ schedules intermingled with online courses throughout a typical day.

The 66 teachers who would lead the program would cost the district $31,500 each, versus the average salary of $75,000 for the district’s traditional classroom teachers.

The program would save the district $16 million next year.

“Kudos for this type of innovation and thinking outside the box for how we deliver education,” said board member David Morgan. “I got tired of coming back to the same things every year.”

But other board members, such as Kathleen Angelucci, expressed concerns about cutting transportation to all of the district’s students who live less than 1.5 miles away from the school, attend magnet schools, or go to after-school Boys & Girls club programs. The district currently provides transportation for elementary students who live more than half a mile from school.

The proposal would save the district $5.6 million.

The district is set to save $4.2 million by starting recent hires at a beginning salary level rather than the average teacher salary.

“This is going to be damaging to teacher morale, which has already been stretched thin,” said Connie Jackson, president of the county’s Association of Educators group. “These additional cuts could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for some teachers.”