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School finance chief adjusts to tough times
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      Over the last several months there have been numerous reports regarding budget cuts by the state of Georgia. One area that has been particularly impacted is education, both at the primary, secondary, and post secondary levels.
       On a local level, many county boards of education have been forced to make extensive cuts in staff - neighboring Screven County is an example of such cuts.
       When you get right down to it, running a school system or university is no different than running a very large corporation. With budgets in the tens of millions of dollars, and staff numbering in the thousands, it is a business.
       With that in mind, I sat down with Charles Wilson. Wilson serves as the assistant superintendant for business and finance for the Bulloch County Board of Education. With an operational budget of approximately $87 million and 1440 employees, I wanted to know what our school system was doing to address state cuts in funding.
       Wilson was quite candid about the position that that the Bulloch County school system has taken.
       "During the last recession, the state of Georgia cut funding," he said. "Until recently, they had been attempting to restore those cuts. However, for the operating year 2008 - 2009, we received a three percent cut. We expect another three percent cut for 2009 - 2010, and probably for the following year as well. It is complicated to explain how they do it, but ultimately our funding is cut significantly."
       Wilson said about 60 percent of the school system's budget is funded by the state, the rest comes from federal funding, a portion of our local sales tax, and from part of the property taxes that are paid by residents.
       "Obviously, in a down economy, sales tax revenues are lower than the year before, because people are buying less," he said. "This year we are tracking approximately $1,000,000 below where we were last year in sales tax revenues. This is first time I have seen a reduction in revenue from the previous year since I came here 13 years ago."
       Wilson said some of the federal stimulus monies, which have come "down" from Washington, D.C., to the state are being used offset state education cuts.
       "Yes, the state of Georgia cut its funding to local school systems, but they are using some federal stimulus monies to offset those cuts, which for now is very helpful," he said. "However, some of the money the federal government wants local systems to use to expand services. How, in a down economy, are you supposed to maintain a new program when the federal funding for it is not guaranteed?"
       Wilson said there has been a two year plan put into place. "We have looked forward assuming that the cuts will be permanent and that federal dollars will dry up," he said. "With that in mind, we know that we will need to reduce staff by 75 positions in the next two years. We are hoping that will occur through retirement and natural attrition. During that time, we will use part of the general fund reserve that we have built up over the years to cover the deficit that will most likely occur. We feel like the deficit will be between $2,000,000 and $3,000,000."
       Wilson said that two years from now, hard cuts may have to be made, but hopefully not.
       "We have a wonderful school system, and we do not want to interrupt the delivery of a quality education to every student," he said. "That is what we are trying to avoid. But, these are uncertain times, and we just have to hope that things turn around. We are taking the approach of planning for the worst, and hoping for the best. I am proud that we have put our system in a position to be proactive and not reactive."

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