Teacher pay hike proposed

SUWANEE - All Gwinnett County Public Schools employees will receive at least a 3 percent raise if Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks' proposed $1.7 billion budget is passed by the Gwinnett County Board of Education next month.

The budget, released Tuesday by school officials, represents about a 16 percent increase from last year's $1.47 billion spending plan, but no property tax increase is proposed.

Wilbanks is asking for the millage rate to stay at its current rate of 20.55. If passed, this will be the third consecutive year at that rate. Property taxes could increase, however, if the assessed value of the property goes up.

The biggest spending increase is in the capital projects fund, which has grown because voters in November approved the renewal of a 1 percent education sales tax.

The education sales tax, which will be collected for five years, also authorized the school district to seek bonds to begin immediate construction of classrooms. A portion of the sales tax will be used to pay back the bonds.

The proposed budget calls for $277.8 million to be spent on capital projects funds, which includes construction of five schools, additions at two schools, land purchases for future school sites, systemwide maintenance and technology.

Classrooms are needed because the school system expects to enroll an additional 7,200 students in the 2007-08 school year, which would bring the total number of students in the district to more than 159,000. That's nearly 10 percent of the students in Georgia, said Rick Cost, Gwinnett's chief financial officer.

The proposed budget provides for 531 teacher positions, which will accommodate the system's growth and the opening of four schools. That's about 315 fewer positions than the school system would like to be able to fund, Cost said. Because of continued reductions in state funding, the school system has seen a 3 percent reduction in the number of staff members it can employ.

The 3 percent raises for all employees will come from the general fund, which Wilbanks proposes to be about $1.2 billion. That's a 6 percent increase in the general fund because of the projected growth in student enrollment.

The proposed raises are in line with Gov. Sonny Perdue's proposal in the state budget. About $38.3 million is necessary to ensure all employees receive the minimum raise.

Some employees will receive a slightly bigger raise. The teacher salary schedule calls for increases in salary with each year of teaching experience beyond two years. The average teacher in Gwinnett has a master's degree, 10 years of experience and earns $53,694, which does not include $18,000 in benefits, said Sloan Roach, the school system's spokeswoman.

The general fund would also help fund state-mandated middle and high school graduation coaches and add two additional activity buses to each cluster, bringing the available number of buses to three in each cluster.

Wilbanks has proposed a slight decrease in the enterprise fund, which pays for the school nutrition program. For the first time in five years, the cost of school lunches will be increasing.

Although the price is rising by a quarter, the meals will still be a good deal, Roach said.

Lunch prices will be $1.75 for elementary school students and $2 for middle and high school students. The reduced lunch price will be $0.40, and reduced breakfast will cost $0.30. The regular breakfast price will be $1.00.

Adults will pay $1.25 for breakfast and $2.50 for lunch.