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Superintendent optimistic about funding bill

SUWANEE - Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said Saturday he is optimistic about a new school funding bill that could provide some flexibility in spending in future years.

Wilbanks and other school district officials met Saturday morning with members of the Gwinnett County Board of Education to discuss the proposed $1.9 billion budget.

The budget is increasing by nearly $97 million dollars because the district anticipates its enrollment will grow by 4,000 students this summer. The school system will also see a slight increase in the amount of state funding it receives, as legislators decided this year to reduce some of the austerity cuts made to school funding.

For the fourth consecutive year, the school system plans to keep the millage rate at 20.55 mills. Property taxes will not be increased unless a home is reassessed and appraised at a higher value.

Chief Financial Officer Rick Cost said it will be a tight budget year because student growth is outpacing the tax digest.

The budget was created using a formula that is tied to student enrollment. The school system also included money for a salary increase of at least 2.5 percent for all employees, which is in line with Gov. Sonny Perdue's state budget recommendation.

School board members discussed topics such as the austerity cuts, which Cost said have amounted to $116 million since 2003. The $8.7 million cut to the 2008-09 school year budget would bump the loss up to $125 million.

They also discussed the "Five-Mill Buy-In," which requires each school district to send local funds to the state in support of the Quality Basic Education Act. The projected amount that Gwinnett County Public Schools must send in the 2008-09 year is nearly $12 million, Cost said.

Wilbanks said he sees the "Investing in Educational Excellence" bill, known as IE2, as a positive because it could provide some relief from mandates that have been underfunded by the state. He said he is asking the state Department of Education to refrain from adding mandates to the bill that would limit the flexibility.

"I remain optimistic ... but I don't want to buy the pig until I see it," he said.

A copy of the district's proposed budget is available online at www.gwinnett.k12.ga.us. The school board will meet at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Peachtree Ridge High School before the area board meeting, and members are expected to adopt the tentative budget.

Two public hearings will take place early next month before the board votes to adopt the final budget at its business meeting in May.