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Tension mounts as school board debates cuts

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Board member balks at cutting high school programs at Grayson Highlands

By TINA E. VAUGHN
Staff

INDEPENDENCE — Grayson Highlands School was one vote away from losing its high school course offerings during a Grayson County School Board meeting May 9.
The cut had the potential to affect as many as 27 students in 2011-12 — and save the school system a minimum $110,000 annually.
Though the school board already had approved a 2011-12 budget — a $21 million spending plan, in which school officials requested $5.56 million in county funds — county supervisors did not approve the budget request.
Instead, the county voted to give $4.2 million in local funds — the necessary amount to secure all state and federal money for the school system’s operation — plus another $1 million to pay for Phase I school construction debt. The supervisors’ action prompted the school board’s May 9  action item — “Revision of 2011-12 School Budget.”
That revision didn’t happen. Following a heated discussion, the board agreed to hold a special meeting beginning 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Grayson County High School auditorium in hopes of finalizing its budget.
As schools’ Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Thomas prepared to make a recommendation to the board that it approve a $20.8 million budget, which included eliminating high school offerings at Grayson Highlands School, member Shannon Holdaway, whose district is home to the school, balked.
Grayson Highlands is considered a pre-kindergarten through seventh grade school that offers core high school classes to those in grades 8 through 12.
“Core classes were supposed to stay there,” Holdaway said. (Core classes include fundamental subjects such as mathematics, English, science and social studies courses.)
Holdaway argued that there was money that could be cut from the budget. “There’s money in there that we’re not considering,” he said.
His arguments persuaded two other board members to vote against approval of the budget — effectively delaying the vote until Wednesday.
Holdaway, Misty Cassell and Chairman Hobert Bailey voted against the motion made by Gary Burris and seconded by Wynn Combs.
Following the vote, Bailey suggested that the board hold the special meeting. Once all increases are explained, then the board can take action concerning the budget, he said.

Cuts
School officials are grappling with a $20.8 million budget that includes a $154,000 shortfall (attributed to state cuts) compared to this year’s funding.
In March, school administrators introduced two possible cuts to cover that shortfall:
• eliminate three instructional days — reducing the school year from 180 to 177 days  — resulting in an average 1.2 percent pay cut for all employees. This would save the school system about $181,000.
• eliminate high school course offerings and positions at Grayson Highlands School for a savings of $195,000.
The board did not discuss these options during budget work sessions in March, but heatedly discussed the Grayson Highlands option May 9, as Thomas prepared to recommend that the board approve a revised $20.8 million 2011-12 budget that eliminated Grayson Highlands’ high school offerings.
Thomas told board members that administrators renegotiated the school system’s property insurance costs for a savings of about $40,000, leaving the shortfall at around $110,000.
Thomas suggested that the board approve the budget, noting that the school system is in the midst of a budget crisis. “We’ve been funded minimally for years and it is catching up with us,” she said.
Thomas noted administrators looked carefully at each expenditure. “We feel that the best thing for the school system... is to eliminate core courses at Grayson Highlands,” she said.
Thomas told the newspaper that, in 2011-12, the change would save about $100,000 in salaries and about $10,000 in mid-day bus transportation to take those students to GCHS, where the students take some classes and electives. Even more money could be saved in the future as staff cuts are absorbed through attrition.


Opposition
Prior to school board discussion concerning 2011-12 budget revisions, three parents spoke in opposition to cuts at Grayson Highlands School.
“Solid schools are a foundation for bringing in businesses,” said parent Tim Donley.
“These decisions will affect all our students for years to come,” said Amy Donley.
“Are we going to be on the chopping block every time we have to save some money?” Rebecca Absher asked.
Board opposition to the recommendation was spearheaded by Holdaway, whose district is home to Grayson Highlands School.
Holdaway said he felt sure that money could be cut from other parts of the budget. To prove his point, Holdaway went line by line through the 32-page list of proposed expenditures — and asked administrators to account for any increase compared to this year.
He was especially concerned that the budget appeared to include a new Information Technology position.
When administrators admitted they didn’t readily have the information available — they’d researched and compiled the data months ago and would need those materials as a reference to answer his questions, they explained — Holdaway threw up his hands. “They’re not going to answer it because they weren’t prepared to answer,” Holdaway said.
During a meeting March 7, Finance Director Julie Bear told school board members that most increases were the result of small increases in grants or federal funding or adjustments in categories where salaries were more accurately divided between departments based on staff duties. “They simply reflect changes I’ve made to make the numbers more accurate,” Bear said March 7.
Director of Instruction Stephen Cornett noted that Grayson Highlands students already are coming to Grayson County High School for some courses.
“Whether they come down all of the time or part of the time, they’re coming down to Grayson County High School,” Cornett said.
He added that the students would be able to better blend with other students if they were at GCHS full-time. They’ll also be able to participate in more Career and Technical Education opportunities, sports, clubs and different electives and classes, he explained.
“It’s a shame,” said an obviously frustrated Holdaway.
“We’ve cut everywhere we can possibly cut,” Thomas said. “This is something we did not want to do... we’re looking at what’s best for every single child.”
“I don’t want to drag you guys though this,” Holdaway told his fellow board members, as he flipped through the pages of his budget. He said he felt sure there was money that could be cut from the budget, without having to cut high school offerings at Grayson Highlands.
“Can we have the question, please?” Combs asked.
Thomas made her official recommendation, to approve the $20.8 million budget, including the elimination of high school offerings at Grayson Highlands.
Burris made the motion; Combs seconded it.
“It’s ill-advised to make this move without discussing all these other items,” Holdaway said, waving his budget.
Burris and Combs voted in favor of the motion. Bailey, Cassell and Holdaway voted no.
Bailey suggested a special meeting. “I think some of the questions Mr. Holdaway brought up are viable. Once we get the answer, then we can vote. I fully expect a lot of these [line-item increases] to be federal or flow-through money.”
Public hearings regarding the school budget already have been held, though administrators plan to address all of Holdaway’s questions prior to any school board action Wednesday, Thomas told the newspaper.
“We’ll be prepared to explain why each [budget] item has an increase,” she said.