Columbia County’s school system is expecting to fill a budget gap for next school year with larger class sizes, fewer teachers and fewer aides, while the county government might be able to provide a tax cut.
Those were the main points from two budget sessions held Tuesday, with school officials struggling to make up for an expected $10 million shortfall, and county officials anticipating lowering property tax rates for the fifth year in a row.
“We’ve got a budget tight as a tick at $175 million” for 2012-13, said school Superintendent Charles Nagle, noting that the amount represents per-pupil expenditures more than $1,100 below the state average.
“We’re getting the best bang for the buck, and we’re a high-achieving school system,” he added.
To make up for next year’s expected shortfall – the result of a combination of stagnant state funding and higher student enrollment – Nagle said savings from the current year will bridge up to $4 million of the gap, with $2 million more if the county’s digest grows by an expected 3 percent.
The system then could gain nearly $3 million by cutting as many as 21 teachers and 62 paraprofessionals, Nagle said. All of those positions would be eliminated through attrition.
The teaching positions would come from slight increases in class sizes throughout the system, allowing classes with up to three students more than the state recommended number. Paraprofessionals – who largely are funded locally rather than through the state – would be reduced to a ratio of one for every three teachers in elementary schools, trimming the number from 195 in the system to 133.
“The money’s got to come from somewhere unless you raise taxes,” Nagle said.
Board members will get a formal proposal on the budget at their first meeting in February.
Earlier in the day, county government department heads and constitutional officers met for a brief study session to outline goals for upcoming budget preparations.
County Commission Chairman Ron Cross said while the tax assessor’s office is expecting modest growth in the county’s tax digest, it’s possible the state Legislature could re-impose a moratorium on revaluing property. If that happens, the digest “would reflect little or no growth,” Cross said.
Cross instructed all of the county’s departments to work from zero-based budgets with no expenditures higher than current levels. Because of constraints from recent years’ consolidation of jobs within the county, he also told department heads to be prepared to make the case for any new hires that might be needed.
Meetings to discuss the county’s budgets are scheduled to begin in early March.