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School board 'confident' in proposed budget

SUWANEE — Gwinnett County Board of Education members said seven years of state funding cuts have further complicated a budget process challenged by the current downturn in the economy.

The school board met Saturday morning for a work session to talk about the budget for the 2010-11 school year. The proposed $1.8 billion budget is about $250,000 less than the current $2 billion budget.

If you go

• What: Public hearings on proposed Gwinnett County Public Schools budget

• When: 7 p.m. May 13 and 6 p.m. May 20

• Where: Instructional Support Center, 437 Old Peachtree Road N.W., Suwanee

"It's what you do during the good times that sets you up for the bad times," said Robert McClure, the board's vice chairman. "One of the reasons we are here is because during the cut times, we were cut. About two-thirds of the cuts we've endured were austerity cuts during times that weren't austerity. … It is not just economic times that brought us to these decisions."

McClure and other board members, however, praised the financial stewardship of the school system.

"It's not a pretty picture, but I feel confident it's the very, very best it can be," school board member Carole Boyce said.

Rick Cost, the chief financial officer for Gwinnett County Public Schools, said the school district began the budget process with a $115.7 million revenue shortfall. About $71.6 million of that is attributed to state budget cuts, while the other $44.1 million is due to a decline in the value of the tax digest.

While the school system plans on maintaining its millage rate for the upcoming year, the property tax rate will generate less money than it has in the past few years, Cost said.

To balance the budget, the school system has planned for several cost-saving measures, including increasing class sizes by one, implementing three furlough days for all employees except bus drivers and school nutrition staff, and mandating a 7.5 percent budget cut across all divisions.

Even with the cuts, the growing school system will educate more students and operate more buildings next year. Enrollment is expected to grow by more than 1,600 students next year to nearly 161,000 students, and the district plans to open eight new school buildings in August.

"There is going to be some impact on services. We can't avoid that," Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said. "But … we're going to have school. … We'll always try to protect the integrity of an instructional day and always try to provide a quality and effective education. Beyond that, we're going to see some differences."

The school board is expected to tentatively adopt the budget at a special called meeting Tuesday evening before the area board meeting at Duluth High School.

The board will hold two public hearings in May before the budget is formally adopted. The public hearings are scheduled for 7 p.m. May 13 and 6 p.m. May 20. The board is scheduled to vote on the adoption of the budget its regular business meeting at 7 p.m. May 20.

For more information about the budget, visit the school system's Web site at www.gwinnett.k12.ga.us.