Those attending filled the Board conference room spilled into the hallway and out into the parking lot.
Varsity Jones County High School football players filled the center of the room on both sides of the conference room table in support of an assistant coach who was among nine teachers told that their contracts would not be renewed next year because their positions were being eliminated.
The players were courteous and respectful while in the boardroom, but that was not the case for all of the adults in the room.
The teachers involved were informed of the cutbacks by their respective principals March 4. School Superintendent Jim LeBrun said in an interview March 11 that the notices were given at that time because he felt compelled to inform those teachers first of the situation.
“We are going to give out contracts in the next couple of weeks,” he said.
None of the non-renewals have been voted on by the Board of Education members, and until that happens, nothing is official. The process of notifying the employees first seems backward, but LeBrun said that is the way it is always done.
“Any given month personnel matters are taken to the Board,” he said.
Eight teachers found out they would not be renewed because of performance, and nine were told their positions were not expected to be around next year due to continued reduction in funds from the state.
“We can enact a reduction of force (RIF) at any time, but we have not done that. Our intent was for the notices to be given to the newer, non-tenured teachers,” LeBrun said.
The superintendent said he had met previously with the principals about the non-renewals. He said the principals were given suggestions of positions to be eliminated, but they were allowed to make the decisions.
“What we are saying with those notices is that, as of today, we can’t fund those positions,” he said.
A loosening of the number of students in classrooms in kindergarten through the eighth grade by the state will allow the realignment of teachers in those grades. LeBrun said the Jones County System has 470 certified personnel. The recommendation he will take to the Board members includes 13.5 positions eliminated due to attrition and 4.5 because of transfers.
The Board approved the loss of three positions in the central office at their March 10 meeting.
The superintendent said out of 140 school level positions including 94 teachers that have been added since 2005, four have been added to the central office. He said the school system has three assistant superintendents.
LeBrun disagreed with figures on a website brought up in the meeting that states he received a 13 percent raise last year. A document he released this week shows he has received a total raise of 12 percent in three increments over five years. His largest increase was 6 percent received in 2007.
He said the Board is looking at all options for reducing expenses, including furlough days, reducing local supplements, instructional coaches, nurses, field trips, realignment of personnel, and the reduction of the number of retired teachers returned to the classroom.
“We are cutting everywhere. The teachers were last,” he said.
During a budget review report at last week’s meeting, he said the projected loss of state funding this year is $1,774,930 and $3,310,007 for 2010. LeBrun said he has hope that the funds from the federal stimulus package could offset some of the losses from the state.
“Anytime you get federal money, stipulations are attached, but we are more than willing to work with that,” he said.
Jones County currently fully funds 54 teaching positions, and with the decrease in funds from the state, that number will have to rise.
One of the budget items being pointed out by protesters is an energy efficiency program. LeBrun said the program initiated last year is guaranteed to pay for itself, and, according to its contract, cannot cost more to operate than the savings the school system receives. Currently the energy savings have been 17.75 percent.
The superintendent said he knew more people than usual would be at last week’s Board meeting, but he had no inclination it would be hundreds.
“One person called to be on the agenda. We certainly didn’t expect the entire football team, their parents, and extended family,” he said. “But we did the best we could sharing our status. We plan to post that information on the website and keep it updated.”
LeBrun said it is frustrating because someone outside the county controls such a large part of the school system’s revenue.
“We are still working on a way to find a way out of the other end of it,” he commented.
The county’s one-cent sales tax is funding the building of the new school but by law cannot be used to pay salaries or the cost of maintenance of day-to-day operation of the system. LeBrun said the system did use SPLOST funds this year to purchase textbooks, buses, and to upgrade technology with computers, which may be categorized as capital outlay.
The boardroom was overflowing with people 30 minutes before the March 10 meeting began. It was warm and stuffy because of the sheer number of people crowded into the small space, and tempers of the people in the audience appeared to rise with the heat.
Board Chairman Ted Stone spoke to the crowd before opening the meeting. He began by explaining the Board of Education has not met about the teacher notices, and he talked about the funding cuts the Jones County system has received from the state.
He noted that in addition to the current cuts, the system’s funding has been cut over $5 million over the past five years.
“Every board in the state is having the same problem. We are fortunate to be in as good shape as we are,” Stone said. “We have some of the best teachers in the state. We don’t hire teachers to fire them.”
He said the new elementary school will create a need for some new teachers, but the majority of the teachers will be transferred from other schools.
“The Board has received some bashing lately, but we have a good Board and I am proud of it,” he stated.
Stone said the notices are still in process, and after the March 30 work session, he believes the public will be pleased with what happens. He said Board of Education money comes from the property owners, and the re-evaluation caps being considered by the state legislature will reduce income.
“No one understands but it’s a shame that counties have to make their budgets before the state, so we are guessing how much money we are going to get,” Stone said. “We have a little money in the bank and are paying our bills. We are all here together to do one thing: educate our children.”
The chairman said he wished the people at the meeting would come every month.
“We’d meet in a football field if we have to,” he added.
Stone lobbies federal legislators and said he is pleading for more flexibility. He has been in Washington with U.S. senators and Congressman Jim Marshall.
“Marshall voted in our favor, but the senators voted the other way. We ask them not to tie our hands. Nine percent of our budget comes from them, and it is used for school nutrition and special education,” he said.
According to Stone, the staffing situation remains a work in progress.
“We are still trying to tweak it so we don’t lose more of our people. We would like to hire them back in different areas, but right now we can’t,” he said.
Stone emphasized to the crowd several times that the notices received by the teachers were not official until voted upon by the Board of Education.
Board member Deloras Moon said the Board of Education has been letting people know about the budget cuts for years.
“Now everyone is catching on,” she said. “It hasn’t been stressful and hasn’t been painful. Now it is.”
The wife of an affected coach asked Board members about the football program. She said her family moved to Jones County at the request of LeBrun. The superintendent replied that, when looking at possible cuts, “there were no sacred cows.”
“We looked at the budget,” he said.
Tracy Gattie was the one parent who asked to speak at the meeting. She said she was at the meeting in support of assistant coach Lee Hamner, who is a teacher at the Ninth Grade Academy, but she would be glad to also speak for any of the teachers.
Gattie gave Board members a printed statement and read it to them. She talked about the nutrition and weight-lifting program Hamner has created for the students and gave a personal testimony about what the program has meant to her son.
The mother pointed out that in an email sent by LeBrun he stated that the school system has not enacted a RIF policy and she wanted to know if that was a lie.
She asked why Hamner was being asked to resign because his performance reviews have been perfect. She also asked why he was not allowed to apply for an available coaching position at the high school.
Gattie pointed out parents elected the school Board members and pay their salaries.
“Lee Hamner is our employee, and we vote to keep him. You have the final decision, and I hope and pray you make the right one,” she said.
LeBrun stated that the school system has not enacted an RIF policy. He said the policy allows for a restructuring of a personnel plan.
“We are not there, and I hope we never get there,” he said.
The superintendent said he is trying to explain that the school system is simply trying to balance its budget and pay its bills. He agreed that the football coaching staff has come a long way, but when making cuts, teachers are considered equally.
“Coaches are teachers first,” he stated.
LeBrun said he would meet with NGA principal Clinton Burston and discuss the situation.
Parent Thomas White said the football program is moving forward.
“If you do what you’re talking about here, you’re going to cut the head off the program and the promises the county made to these coaches are not being fulfilled. If certain coaches don’t come back, it will kill the program,” White said.
Gattie said she is concerned because several football players said they will not play next year. She said the players are not only doing well on the football field but are also excelling in the classroom.
“They are pouring their heart and soul into their classes,” she said.
Teacher Ginger Bailey objected to the superintendent not coming with her principal to tell her that her job was being cut.
“I can take the cut, but I need to know you care. I’ve taught for 23 years,” she said.
A few left the meeting as the agenda was followed, but many were not detoured by the heat or lack of seating and stayed until Board members went into closed session and after.
Before the football players left, Stone had a word of encouragement for them.
“It’s an honor to have you here, and we appreciate what you do. We know it’s hard work. You guys look like a football team when you are not even playing,” he said.
LeBrun said the Board of Education will conduct a budget work session March 30 at 6:00 p.m. to discuss all scenarios and possibilities in order to absorb the more than $3 million in cuts from state funding and to develop a feasible budget for the 2009-2010 school year. The meeting will be held in the W.E. Knox Civic Center.