After some debate, the Columbia County Board of Education voted Tuesday to buy cool air for some bus riders next year.
Board Member Lee Muns said the $283,800 expense to air condition 43 buses was a luxury the board couldn't afford in a lean budget year.
"It's a nicety. It's not going to improve academic performance. We are going to spend $283,800 to make kids feel good for 45 minutes," Muns said.
Board Member Wayne Bridges said he was concerned some would have air conditioned buses, while others wouldn't. Only buses with seven years of life left would be retrofitted, leaving about 90 in the fleet without air. The board began buying new buses with air conditioning this year but only gets about 10-15 each year.
"How do you tell little Johnny his cousin gets to ride in an air-conditioned bus but he's got to sweat?," Bridges said.
Chairman Roxanne Whitaker, who supported the move to provide cool air, said she did her own research and rode a bus. It was 107 degrees inside when she got on and 115 degrees when the route ended an hour and a half later, she said.
The expense was one of about $593,000 in improvements added to the 2005 budget, which received tentative approval from the board at Tuesday night's meeting.
The new budget projects a $4 million shortfall in revenue. Estimated revenues are $121 million, while projected expenses are $125 million. Salaries and benefits make up about 90 percent of the budget. The system has a $27 million reserve to draw on and will not increase the levy of 17.18 mills. Six percent growth is expected in Columbia County's tax digest this year. The local share of revenue is $43.9 million.
This budget represents a $2.2 million increase over budgeted expenditures in 2004.
The school system started this year with a $30 million reserve and is running a $3.6 million deficit in the FY 2004 budget.
Other budget expenditures include $100,000 to train special education teachers on how to serve autistic students. There are only four of them in the system. The budget also includes $45,500 for a lead teacher for the autistic program.
The board also voted to increase the amount for special grants. Seventy thousand dollars will be available for each school to apply for a $10,000 grant to be used for school improvement.
The board is also considering a new, 10-step administrative salary schedule that would cost an additional $242,476. Though the details of it are still being worked out, the salary schedule would provide flexible work days and would increase the amount of days worked for some.
School Superintendent Tommy Price blamed the budget deficit on the state for not properly funding education. The system has lost $4.2 million in state earnings due to austerity adjustments since 2003.
"If the state had upheld their share of this, I would be presenting a balanced budget to you," Price told the board. "The state took an austerity adjustment and left us to fend for ourselves."
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