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Schools face more furloughs

ALBANY -- After celebrating the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, school systems and colleges around the state were faced with the reality of dealing with three additional unpaid, non-instructional furlough days.

Gov. Sonny Perdue made the request late Friday night when he released his Amended Fiscal Year 2010 and FY 2011 budgets.

Although the budgets still need approval from legislators, Bert Brantley, a spokesman for Perdue, said it is unlikely the proposals will change since the governor has had several meetings with the Legislature throughout the budget process. The Legislature likely won't vote on the amended budget for several more weeks, Brantley said.

"It is a recommendation, but we fully expect that they will go through with this," said Brantley, who grew up in Valdosta. "The school systems only have so many planning days left before the end of the school year. The systems will have to take these furloughs as soon as possible, and it doesn't make a lot of sense that the legislators would change (Perdue's 2010 budget proposals)."

Perdue addressed the furlough issue and clarified his Amended Fiscal Year 2010 request for three furloughs when he addressed the state's joint House and Senate Appropriations Committee Tuesday. An Associated Press report released Friday incorrectly stated Perdue was seeking an additional 3 percent overall cut to education.

"I want to be clear about this -- the education recommendation is not an additional 3 percent," Perdue said. "School systems have been planning their budgets based on what we said in July, and I am proud to be able to say that we will stick to that. As a matter of fact, the only significant new cut in the amended FY10 budget is three more furlough days for state employees. Those furlough days will save the state about $125 million.

"Take education, for example," he continued. "We will save about $100 million by furloughing teachers for three non-instructional days. To realize those same savings in the area of education, you would have to lay off 2,000 teachers. I think most teachers agree that the furlough option is preferable."

Brantley explained that the 2,000-teacher figure was based state teachers making an average of $50,000 a year, which would be a savings of $33 million for a total of roughly $100 million. Brantley, who has worked with Perdue since December 2006, said additional furloughs for the remainder of FY10, which ends June 30, are not expected. To provide a national prospective, Brantley said that California has laid off 20,000 to 30,000 teachers due to the current economic recession.

"Based on the path that we're currently on, furloughs are not a long-term management policy," Brantley said. "The 2011 budget doesn't call for any additional furloughs, and we don't anticipate having to institute additional furloughs as long as the economy continues to pick up in the months ahead."

Since Southwest Georgia schools had just returned from taking Monday off because of the national King holiday, Dougherty, Lee, Worth and Mitchell county school systems, along with Pelham City School District, had yet to decide how they planned to take the proposed additional three furlough days by June 30. Terrell County Superintendent Robert Aaron did not return a call for a comment from The Herald.

"The Dougherty County School System is studying action in response for the governor's request for three additional furlough days," Dougherty Public Information Director R.D. Harter said. "We will make the response available to our employees, the media and the public when our board approves it."

Lee County Superintendent Lawrence Walters will be discussing the matter with principals today, and the school system's teachers will meet with an advisory committee next week. However, Walters said Perdue's request for more furloughs days didn't catch him off guard.

"During the preceding months, the state economy was down and we'd receive information that it may happen, that we may get more days, which we did," he said. "The issue is still the economy."

Worth County Public Information Director Heather Faircloth said the school system planned to discuss the governor's furlough proposal at Tuesday night's board meeting.

Although nothing is official, Mitchell County Superintendent Beauford Hicks said he anticipated the additional furlough days would utilize some of the scheduled half-days and post-planning days at the end of the school year. Hicks said he will be meeting with school system principals today.

"We're going to do everything we can to protect instructional time and will start serious talks about budget on Friday with the Finance Committee, and that was already on the calendar," Hicks said. "We're down so low (with our funds), that I'm afraid to say it's improving. I think it will work itself out in the next two to three years. But, I fear it might go longer than that."

Hicks also noted that even with the economy, federal, state and community standards haven't changed. In fact, by 2014 the federal government's No Child Left Behind Act mandates that every student must be proficient.

"We're caught in a very precarious situation because we're going to have to keep producing, but you can't get blood from a turnip," Hicks said. "It's going to impact us, but we don't intend as administrators and teachers to let it impact the quality of those standards that we have in place.

"Time waits for no child, and whatever we fail to do academically and socially for children will impact us five, 10 and 15 years down the road as a society and that's what we're up against," Hicks said.

Albany's Elizabeth Ragsdale, the Georgia School Board's District 2 state representative, said she spoke to several superintendents Tuesday and the subject of Perdue's furlough proposal was raised. District 2 covers about 32 counties, ranging from Peach County down to the Florida line and across to the Alabama line.

"I was very gratified to hear these superintendents emphasize the importance of taking these days after the high-stakes testing so that students will not be penalized," Ragsdale said. "I was very touched that despite these very difficult challenges, everything possible is being done to prevent them from negatively impacting student learning and achievement. Our educators' dedication to the education of our students is awe-inspiring, and they are to be commended for persevering with enthusiasm and determination despite so many challenges."

As far as Albany colleges are concerned, Albany State University, Darton College and Albany Technical College all have plans already in place to accommodate up to three furlough days.

"The budget we submitted to the Board of Regents last fall included six furlough days for us," Vice President of Fiscal Affairs Larry Wakefield said. "The Board of Regents recommended we go ahead and do six in anticipation of this coming down the road, so we have done that. (We) have already taken three in the fall, have taken the first one in January, and have one scheduled in February and in March. So we're covered and don't see a need at this point to take any additional furlough days for the rest of this fiscal year."

Darton College Director of Communications and Philanthropy Krista Robitz said the school will take three furlough days during the remaining portion of the fiscal year. One will be next month, another in March and the final one in April.

Albany Technical College will implement a furlough system for its full-time employees based a tiered-salary system. Those earning the least will take the fewest furlough days, Public Relations and Information Director Miloy Schwartz said.

"We hope the tiered-furlough system will lessen the financial impact on the majority of our faculty and staff," Albany Tech President Anthony Parker said. "To minimize the loss of instruction to our students, each faculty member will provide online assignments on the day or days he or she is furloughed."

Schwartz said Albany Tech administrators have systematically scheduled furlough days for themselves and staff members through June 30 to ensure normal business will not be interrupted.

In the first round of furloughs mandated by Perdue in July, Worth County and Terrell County school systems were two of the reported six school systems of the 181 in the state that opted to fund the furloughs.

Even with the amended FY10 budget, Perdue had education receiving 54 percent of the state's $17.4 billion budget, a $1.2 billion reduction from the original 2010 budget. The 2011 budget stands at $18.2 billion.

"Educating the next generation is the top priority for Georgians, and that's why we've protected it every time we've been forced to make cuts," Perdue said Tuesday to the state's joint House and Senate Appropriations Committee. "Consistent with that approach, for FY10 we are cutting education less than 3 percent while asking other state agencies for reductions of 9 percent, on average. These are not across-the-board cuts, and some agencies have reduced expenditures by as much as 12 percent."

The Amended FY 2010 Budget also includes $27 million in disaster assistance funding. The funds cover storm damage and floods in South Georgia last spring and for September flooding in the metro Atlanta area.

The FY 2011 budget features more than $900 million in bond projects. These projects include $168 million in construction, equipment and school buses for Georgia's K-12 schools. It also includes $121 million in projects for state universities and $44 million for technical schools.

"A total of $333 million in education," a release from the Governor's Office stated about the FY11 budget. "That signals a clear and continuing investment in Georgia's future."