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Rynders: Budget crunch looming

Photo by Carly Farrell

Photo by Carly Farrell

LEESBURG, Ga. -- In a meeting with the Lee County Board of Education on Friday, Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Leesburg, said the best approach at this point is to remain cautiously optimistic.

This advice comes at a time when, primarily due to the loss of stimulus dollars, Georgia is facing a $1.5 billion shortfall -- which Rynders pointed out while also saying there are some states seeing shortfalls as high as $8 billion.

"We are in better shape than most states out there," the District 152 representative said. "We have to either raise revenue or cut government. We won't be raising taxes. We hope this is the last year we will be in this position."

The General Assembly is looking at a 7 percent budget cut. Roughly 50 percent of the state's funding is dedicated to education.

One sensitive issue in regard to education and funding will be what to do with the HOPE Scholarship to ensure adequate moneys are available, Rynders said.

"There have been a lot of proposals floating around," he said. "Elimination for those in remedial courses, an increase in the GPA requirement and financial standards are some of the things being looked at."

Limiting the amount of tuition increases may also be an option, the representative added. Members of Lee's School Board highly recommended focusing on academic standards when figuring out what to do with HOPE.

Dougherty County School Board member Carol Tharin, who also sat in on the meeting, took the opportunity to inquire whether there would be money to establish a career academy in Dougherty County next year if it wasn't done this year.

"The position we are in is that the money for career academies is nothing more than a recommendation from the governor," Rynders responded. "It can be taken off or added to.

"It is impossible to know if that money is going to stick. I would make sure any system takes a look at the cost."

During the meeting, Lee Superintendent Lawrence Walters mentioned officials hope to build a new school in the county should Lee's special-purpose, local-option sales tax be renewed by voters later this year -- which the school system is hopeful for.

"We are very hopeful (for SPLOST IV's approval)," Walters said. "We keep growing."

Officials with the Lee school system, who are set to meet with Rynders again in Atlanta on Feb. 23, indicated that the meeting Friday went well. It may have helped ease nerves in a school district that has four fewer instruction days for its students and eight fewer working days for its teachers this semester.

"(Meetings) give us a chance to have dialogue and express thoughts," Walters said. "It's a wonderful opportunity to get an update from a legislative perspective.

"Rynders is good about meeting with us. I think it went well."

Other topics touched on included the redistricting of Georgia's election districts in the coming months following the 2010 census.

"The districts will get much larger because we lost a lot of people," Rynders said. "Certainly south Georgia hasn't grown as the rest of the state has."

Once reapportionment is complete, significant changes are expected in terms of seats in the General Assembly. The new districts will be about 53,500 people per representative as opposed to the 45,000 per representative that it is now, Rynders said.