Muscogee School Board: Out-of-county employees' kids will pay tuition next year, no vote on changing school times

spauff@ledger-enquirer.comMay 17, 2010 

Benning Hills Elementary students will go to a new school and school district employees who live outside the county but send their kids to the county’s schools will start paying some tuition during the 2010-2011 school year, due to the Muscogee County School District’s bleak financial situation.

The school district is facing a potential $18 million cut to its budget for the 2011 fiscal year, which begin July 1. The school board approved a number of budget-cutting measures during its board meeting Monday night, including closing Benning Hills Elementary and moving those students to Muscogee Elementary, closing the Muscogee County Evening High School and charging half the cost of tuition to employees who live outside the county but send their kids to the county’s schools. The board also voted to table a proposal to change school start and end times after hearing from a concerned parent at the meeting.

“None of these are easy recommendations to bring to this board. We have looked at many, many, many items,” superintendent Susan Andrews said.

Children of employees have been allowed to attend the county’s schools free of charge since 2003. Currently, about 200 children of employees are not being charged tuition. Out-of-county tuition is about $2,500 and out-of-state tuition is about $8,500.

The board voted 5-4 to approve a new tuition policy for the 2010 school year. Board members Philip Schley, Cathy Williams, John Wells, Brenda Storey and Naomi Buckner voted for the policy change; Pat Hugley-Green, Norene Marvets, James Walker and Rob Varner voted against the policy. Children of employees entering grades 10, 11, 12 to be grandfathered into the 2003 policy and have no tuition charged for the remainder of their time in the district and students in pre-K through ninth grade would be charged one-half of the current tuition — $ 1,262.50 for out-of-county students and $4,273.50 for out-of-state students.

Tuition could be paid monthly through a payroll deduction, if desired by the employee.

Superintendent Susan Andrews initially asked for an amended motion charging half-tuition to all employees for the 2010-2011 school year and full tuition for the 2011-2012 school year.

“As I talked to more and more taxpayers, if we grandfather those in, they just didn’t feel like that was fair. They were being asked to pay full cost of students that were not Muscogee County residents,” she said.

But some board members said asking employees to take on a new expense of a couple thousand dollars on short notice was unfair.

Varner, who voted against the new tuition policy, said he thought taking away the tuition break so quickly was “vicious.”

“I believe our staff deserves a tuition break, permanently. They are our staff. Every company gives their staff breaks,” he said.

But board members and Andrews said they’ve also gotten calls from employees who live in the county, asking why they do not get an $8,000 bonus.

“I agree with what has been said here about treating staff differently. It’s if all employees get the same benefit or have access to the same benefit. There is an inherent unfairness to how it was set up,” Williams said.

Wells proposed a policy that would require employees who live out of the county but send their children to Muscogee County schools to pay 1/3 of the current tuition next year, then another third the following year and the full cost during the 2012-2013 school year. The proposal was voted down.

The board could revisit the idea of charging full tuition to employees who live outside the county but send their kids to the local schools during the next fiscal year.

The district is also considering changing the start and end times for school days to save money.

Changing the start and ending times of the school day will allow the school district to tier the transportation system and reduce driver and bus needs by 15 to 20 buses, saving the district about $300,000.

Next year, elementary students will be in school from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; middle school students would be in classes from 9 a.m. to 4:20 p.m. and high school students would be in classes from 8:35 a.m. to 3:25 p.m.

One parent spoke out at the meeting about the change.

Sheri Throlson, who has children at River Road and Britt David Elementaries, said though she lives no more than 5 miles from either school, her children sometimes spend more than an hour on the bus. The earlier school start times would mean her daughter would be getting on the bus at 6 a.m. Throlson said she sometimes drives her kids to school, but she expected more parents would rely on school buses next year due to later start times for middle school.

“I think you are going to find a lot parents like me, who have done driving, aren’t going to be able to,” she said.

Throlson said she also worried that students’ grades would suffer if they had classes later in the day.

“I think you need to think about grades. My kids often look like zombies when walk through the door (in the afternoon),” she said. “My children do their best work during the first half of the day.”

Some board members also spoke out against the changes.

“I have children riding the bus for over an hour and a half every day. There is no way I can support this with the amount of information we have,” Storey said.

The district's chief of operations and facilities Myles Caggins said changing the bell times could insure a shorter bus route for some students and said that the current system needed to be revised.

“You have been governing a system that is not serving the needs of the community. We can’t afford to continue like this, the way it is,” he said. During the meeting, the board also approved closing Benning Hills Elementary next year. Students will be consolidated with those at Muscogee Elementary.

Muscogee Elementary has 189 students and Benning Hills has 212 students. The school district employs a full-time principal, a full-time counselor, a full-time media specialist, and a full-time secretary at each of these schools. Consolidating the schools would save the district about $350,000 in salaries. Teachers from Benning Hills would move to Muscogee Elementary. Administrators, such as the counselor, and secretaries would be moved to other vacant positions in the district.

The district will also close the Muscogee County Evening High School. The program allows students to attend classes at the Daniel Educational Center from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. daily to recover credits toward high school graduation. It has seen a decline in enrollment over the last three years and more high schools are implementing their own credit recovery programs during the school year and the summer. The program costs about $450,000 in personnel costs. All the teachers at the evening school are already employed with the district in other teacher positions and will lose the extended day money they earn from teaching evening classes. Students will be able to continue credit recovery at individual schools.

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