Gwinnett school board scolds state over funding cuts

The Gwinnett school board tipped its hat to district administrators Saturday for presenting a balanced 2011 budget without raising taxes.

At the same time, several members admonished the state for requiring public schools to do more with less.

The state's largest school system plans to trim $251 million in expenses next year to keep property taxes from rising while absorbing another 1,633 students and staffing seven new schools. Total enrollment next year is estimated at about 161,000 students.

The proposed budget cuts represent a 12.5 percent decrease from this year's $2 billion spending plan.

"I am very concerned that even after all of this is said and done, we'll come out of this more crippled than we were going into it," said board Vice Chairman Robert McClure.

"One of the reasons we are here is because during good times public education was cut significantly [by the state]. ... We were put on a crash diet before the famine hit," McClure said.

For the seventh straight year, Gwinnett schools face so-called austerity cuts in state funding. This money, established by a state formula that considers enrollment and district wealth, has been reduced by $75 million for 2011. Further, revenue from local property taxes is also expected to fall by $45.4 million because of a drop in property values.

The district has kept its tax rate steady for the past six years at 20.55 mills. Most of that, 19.25 mills, goes for maintenance and operation, which Georgia law caps at 20 mills, leaving the district .75 mills it could raise taxes if it chose to.

"We are at -- and you could make the point we are past -- the point where you can produce a quality product that people want to have," McClure said.

Rick Cost, chief financial officer, said the district took several steps to make up for the 2011 budget shortfall.

Class sizes, on average, will increase by one student, saving $31.2 million. Another $15.6 million will be saved by freezing salaries and incorporating three furlough days for all employees except bus drivers and food service workers. A district-level hiring freeze will save another $8.5 million, and building projects will be lowered by $187 million.

The district also plans to save $9 million by reducing its retirement system contribution rate from 106 percent to 100 percent. Cost said the move will not affect current or future employees because auditors consider 100 percent funding well over what's needed.

Board member Daniel Seckinger said publicizing the financial constraints of the school system will become more important in the future.

"The challenge we have [is] communicating the difficulties of today -- we can almost sound alarmist to people who have just been sitting back and chilling out and enjoying a great school system -- and it gets even harder next year," he said. "I don't know how we do that."

An executive summary of the budget is available online at Public hearings are scheduled for May 13 and 20. The board will vote on whether to approve the budget on May 20.