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Cobb school board facing $62 million shortfall

8:30 AM, May 9, 2012   |    comments
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Video: School Budget Cuts Affect Teachers, Too, in Personal Ways

Teacher Roxanne Lopez shows her duct-taped seat belt on the 20-year-old car she's trying to keep running.

COBB COUNTY, Ga. -- Public school system budgets are getting axed and sliced, right now, across Metro Atlanta, once again, as school boards look ahead to the 2012-2013 school year with ever-dwindling tax revenues to spend.

The Cobb County School Board has tentatively approved a plan to erase a projected deficit of more than $62 million. At a Wednesday work session, they may consider alternative plans.

In the budget suggested by the superintendent, the savings would come from eliminating 350 teacher positions, furloughing teachers five days instead of the two days of furloughs they had this school year, shortening the school year to 175 days from the current 180, delaying the teachers' scheduled pay raises for six months, reducing the hours paraprofessionals would work to 60 percent of full time, and increasing class size by two students per class.

The school board will take comments from the public on the proposed cuts at its board meeting Wednesday night at 514 Glover Street in Marietta. There will be 30 minutes of public comments, followed by the regular board meeting. The meeting will also be streamed live online for those unable to attend. Click here to watch.

The budget cutting would certainly impact students, which is "number one" on the minds of teachers.

But it would impact the teachers, too, in many personal ways.

One day after the school board tentatively agreed to the budget-cutting plan proposed by Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, 11Alive's Jon Shirek spoke with three teachers who were at the school board meeting, who also lead the Cobb County Association of Educators. They are worried, and trying to be hopeful about their futures, and wanting to believe public schools will continue to attract the best and brightest to be teachers.  

Connie Jackson
Cobb County Association of Educators

Well, I think teachers are always on the lower end of the [pay] scale, if you look at other professions with equal college degrees and time in service, your teachers are going to be at the bottom of that.

Even jobs that only have a bachelor's degree make more than a master's degree teacher.

This is the salary schedule [she points to a laptop that's logged into the Cobb County Schools website]... If you look at the metro counties, Cobb is slowly inching downward instead of upward.

If you look, a master's level teacher who's got seven years makes $48,000. That compares to a brand-new teacher making around $36,000.

It doesn't take into account the furloughs...

[I was at Thursday's school board meeting] to put a human face on it so that [school board members] don't say "five furlough days" and think that's not a big deal. Because when you spread that over the entire year, which is what they do, it equates to about $200 a month, or so, that will be taken out of your check, depending on what level you're at. That's what I pay for my son's braces a month. So when you're talking five furloughs, I'm having to decide whether I can continue having braces on my son.

And I want [school board members] to understand the impact that their decisions have.

We have a lot of teachers that are willing to email and share with the school board how personal that's going to impact them, because we're already low paid for our college degrees, and it's tough.

Dionne Taylor
VP, Cobb County Association of Educators

My salary has decreased about $4,000 in the last four years.

Every year my bills are going up, my salary is going down.

A lot of young teachers that are coming into the schools right now are seeing the effects, as well.

Some of them do start to change their minds.

So sometimes they have to wonder, "Do I want to do this?" And some of them do change their minds. Because working part-time, sometimes, makes more money. Or they can stay at home with their families.

We worry if the best people are becoming teachers.

Pay us what we're worth and give us the resources that we need.

I have been doing this for 20 years.

If I get out of teaching now, I'll be quitting on my students. And I'm not a quitter.

I do feel confident that [school board members] are hearing me, because one of the board members during the break came to me and said "You did a good job, and I hear what you're saying, and we're going to do something about it."

Roxanne Lopez
VP, Cobb County Association of Educators

This is my car [a rusting, 1992 Toyota, which was brand new when she bought it]. It has 308,000 miles on it. I'm very proud that I have that much, but I certainly would have loved to have a newer car. I know we've got to make budget cuts, but it's really hurting us, really bad.

[She shows her duct-tape-repaired seat belt] Duct tape goes for everything. This is my duct-taped lap safety belt. [She laughs as she talks] It works, it works; you do what you've got to do to make it, to survive.

If kids come to school hungry, if I have an extra $1 in my pocket, it's going to the kids. But if I don't even have enough even to survive and drive on a decent car, how can I make sure I have the stuff for the kids at school?

And we want our kids, I say our kids, even though they're not my personal kids, I am very concerned about each one of them, making sure they have as much background knowledge [and the best education we can give them].

[School board members] have got to make sure they're not just taking the easy way out, you know, [as if they would say], "Oh, yeah, we can just give you five furlough days; that's the way we're going to do it." Make sure they're exploring all possibilities.

We want to reach out [to the school board]. Is there any other place in the United States that has a better way of doing something instead of just saying, "Oh, cut your pay, another day off, another day off, low pay"?

We [in my family] are budgeted extremely tight.

[The continuing school budget cuts are] hitting our pockets directly. I'm thinking maybe next year I'll be walking a lot more [she laughs again about her old heap of a car], which is great. But, my goodness, it really hurts my pocket even to even talk about $20. I mean we're such on a tight budget.

(She says she didn't get into the teaching profession to get rich or even have a new car every few years.)

I went into the teaching profession to make a difference. And I have a lot of experience, and I think kids can really benefit from my knowledge and what I can do with it. I knew I wouldn't be making a lot, but I do want to make my payments. I want to be able to survive to be able to [teach].

This will be my last job I ever wanted. You know I started later on [seven years ago, and she is in her 50s now]. But for young people to even have the encouragement -- and to say they can't make a living from this -- we want to show you can. But right now it doesn't look like it.

After the teachers spoke at the Cobb County School Board meeting, the board members told staff to come up with alternative budgets that could erase the deficit with, perhaps, three days of teacher furloughs instead of five, and soften some of the other budget-cutting proposals, as well.

Following Wednesday's budget work session, the board is expected to vote on the final budget on May 17. 

On Twitter:  @JonShirek @JulieWolfe

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