The new budget for the Columbia County school system is more than $3 million short.
The school board adopted a budget on Tuesday that projects about $165.1 million in revenues and about $168.6 million in expenditures.
School officials intend to withdraw about $3.5 million from the reserve fund to balance the general fund. Last year, the board withdrew $1.5 million to balance the current budget.
Those withdrawals will deplete the reserves down to $26 million, which is the most the school board can legally keep in reserves at 15 percent of the overall general fund budget.
To limit budget cuts, school officials said they had to pull from reserves to compensate for a $6 million loss in state funding. The school system has eliminated 17 teaching positions, two counseling positions, cut middle school Spanish-language instruction, cut funding for instructional supplies by 10 percent, and included five furlough days in next year's school calendar.
Officials had considered cutting some middle school sports programs and eliminating nearly 70 para-professional teaching positions, but backed off on those options for at least one more year. Money is included in the new budget to hire as many as 15 more para-professionals, but they will be expected to act as substitute teachers more often as the need arises.
During the past three years, the board has lost about $21 million in state funding even as the system's student population grew by more than 1,000. Last year, the board eliminated nearly 60 teachers and para-professionals through attrition and increased class sizes to make up for lost state funding.
Gov. Sonny Perdue allowed school systems to exceed maximum class sizes by two pupils this past school year to help local school boards budget for fewer teachers.
During a session last week, the state Board of Education did away with class size limits altogether for next school year. Superintendent Charles Nagle said such a move allows school systems more flexibility in budgeting for teacher salaries, which make up about 90 percent of the county's school budget.
For every teacher the school board doesn't have to hire, the system can save about $70,000 in salaries and benefits.
Officials don't want to abuse that privilege.
The board passed a resolution on Tuesday not to exceed established class size limits by more than three pupils. Previous rules limited class sizes to 18 pupils in kindergarten classes without a para-professional, 20 with a one, 21 pupils in first through third grades, 28 in core classes of fourth through eighth grades, and 32 students in core classes for ninth through 12th grades.
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