The Liberty County School System administration, along with the Liberty County Board of Education, held a community forum Thursday night at the Performing Arts Center to discuss its upcoming 2015-’16 budget and the impending reduction in school-system personnel.
An informational flier was distributed to all in attendance. According to the flier, LCSS has lost a cumulative $33 million in state revenue over the past four years.
The flier goes on to state that because of the decrease in revenue, the district has “had to rely on its fund balance and reserves in order to subsidize expenditures without raising the millage rate,” and that “a reduction in force is absolutely necessary.”
Parents, teachers and administrators in attendance were allowed to submit questions in writing at the beginning of the forum. The notecards were passed to the front, to allow staff to “categorize” the questions, according to LCSS Chief Administrative Services Officer Jason Rogers.
LCSS Superintendent Dr. Valya Lee, Chief Academic Officer Mary Alexander, Chief Financial Officer Roger Reese and Rogers, along with all seven board-of-education members, took the stage to respond to the questions, but not before a musical selection from the Lyman Hall Elementary Chorus and a video montage.
Following the chorus’ performance, over half of the audience members stood up and left.
Most of the submitted questions related to the budget, the reduction of positions and iPads.
One question read, “What (has) changed from last year’s budget to this year that is requiring job cuts or budget reductions up to an estimated $9 million?”
“I must say that that is part of our concern,” Lee responded, stating that “very little has changed” with regard to the district’s budget. She then referred to the handout, emphasizing the reduction in state funds.
Karen Quinlan, parent of two Liberty County High School graduates and one current LCHS sophomore, then spoke out from the audience, asking, “Where did the reduction come from?”
Lee responded that the majority of the district’s funds come from the state and federal governments. She also pointed out that LCSS receives revenue from local taxes, but that the district has not raised its millage rate in several years.
Lee also explained that it is not uncommon for the state government or the “feds” to rescind funds that already have been promised to the school system.
She said that just last April, when “we had already established our budget … (the state told) us that they’re going to take $4.5 million … that was in the area of equalization.”
Lee said she has worked in other districts that were forced to have midyear budget amendments due to unforeseen expenses above the local school system’s control.
“Are the individuals at the legislature, the state department, doing things haphazardly or without any plan of action? Absolutely not,” Lee said. “Uncertainty of funds stem from the federal government. Many times, we are at the mercy of what we’re going to get from the feds and … the state.”
Rogers read aloud one question that asked whether general-fund dollars were used to purchase iPads. Lee responded that only E-SPLOST funds were used to buy the iPads.
Lee stressed the fact that the district cannot continue to subsidize personnel and programs with general-fund and reserve dollars, stating that “we have … to reconsider how we align district priorities and spending.”
She said that the district’s reserves already are down to two months’ worth of operating expenses, which, by law, it must maintain.
“We want to take every necessary step to reduce only the staff that we must reduce in order to balance the budget,” she said. “We value our employees — as does this board of education — and it puts them second only to the students.
“When we consider that 85 percent of this district’s budget is spent on personnel, we will not be able to realize any significant budget reduction without reducing personnel.”
Following the forum, Quinlan said she was not completely satisfied with what she’d heard.
“I don’t think that the curtains were pulled back all the way,” she said. “I just don’t think it was enough detailed information.
“To say that, over the last four years, we’ve received $33 million less — how did you not see that coming? Why didn’t you forecast that over the last couple years?”
Quinlan also said she was disappointed with the mass departure of stakeholders before the question-and-answer session had even begun.
“I think the community missed an opportunity to show their support to teachers and administrators, and an opportunity to ask questions that need to be asked,” she continued. “It’s our responsibility to ask the right questions, to hold the school board and the superintendent responsible.”
Quinlan said that she has been pleased with her children’s educational experiences, particularly at LCHS.
“The communication at (LCHS) is outstanding. I can pick up the phone and talk to (LCHS Principal Paula Scott) or any administrator at any given moment,” she said. However, she said she does not see the same level of communication coming from the central office.
Quinlan admitted that she does not have all the answers, but said that she wants to work with the school system’s administration to help find plausible solutions that impact the least number of jobs.
“I’m not against the school board; I’m not against Dr. Lee,” she said. “I want to be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. I want to hold them accountable.”