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Schools chief offers ideas for saving money
School blackouts, fewer substitutes considered for savings

In a time of increasingly lean budgets, McDuffie County School Superintendent Jim LeBrun is leaving no stone unturned.

School systems across the state had to trim their budgets an additional three percent in July after Gov. Sonny Perdue issued a 3-percent cut across the board in Quality Basic Education funds from the state and a mandatory three-day furlough for all certified employees. The total revenue loss to McDuffie County exceeded $880,000, Mr. LeBrun said.

At the past two school board planning meetings, Mr. LeBrun threw out ideas for cutting expenses and increasing revenue.

Those ideas included blackouts at all schools, opening the county boundary lines, and limiting substitute teacher expenses.

In the past, board members have mentioned how well-lit the schools are at night. Mr. LeBrun acknowledged driving by facilities at night and even seeing interior lights on. His idea is to have all lights -- inside and out -- turned off at night.

Mr. LeBrun said the schools have security alarms, so they will remain secure. He said he has talked to law enforcement officials in other parts of the state, but not in McDuffie County, about the idea and it was well-received.

"They like the idea because if there's no lights on, they know everything is OK," Mr. LeBrun said. "But it sounds easier than it is. It will involve re-wiring some of the schools, so it's not something we will do immediately, but something we will work towards."

In the meantime, schools are conserving energy by turning off lights and air conditioning in empty rooms and hallways. Lights in the front offices have been minimized, and bus drivers cut off their buses if they have to sit idle for a few minutes to wait for students.

Prior to school starting this year, Mr. LeBrun said he received a letter from a parent in another county requesting permission for their daughter to attend high school in McDuffie County.

Mr. LeBrun said enrollment in McDuffie County has been declining for the past four years, yet the school system is still paying for classrooms and teachers. Discussion at the July planning meeting included charging tuition to help increase revenue.

Comptroller Tom Smalley said it takes $2,518 of local money to educate one student for one year, but agreed with Mr. LeBrun that the board could charge more than that.

Board Chairwoman Georgia Hobbs said the idea "comes up every few years," and she is "strongly opposed to it," because it "steals students from poorer counties."

Board member Dexter Lovins said he knows of a lot of students who come from other counties anyway. "They find ways to get around it," he said.

"We are not in the business of generating funds; we are trying to survive," Mrs. Hobbs said. "We are not a for-profit organization."

In a later interview, Mr. LeBrun said the idea was dropped. "It's not something the board wants to pursue at this time," he said.

Discussion in budget work sessions and planning sessions has also focused on the high rate of substitute teacher usage, which cost the McDuffie School System more than $400,000 in the 2008-2009 school year.

Board members adopted a new plan that discontinues the use of the Automated Educational Substitute Operator Program, or AESOP, an Internet- and phone-based automated service that calls substitutes automatically when a teacher calls in sick.

This year, McDuffie teachers will have to call their principal or an appointed person directly and speak with them.

"We will always have subs, but we are trying to cut the number we usually have in half," Mr. LeBrun said.

In short-term cases, the schools will fill in the absence with various teachers and school staff who are already at work but have free time, rather than paying an additional person to come in, Mr. LeBrun said.

"We will all have to work together," he said.

Web posted on Thursday, August 20, 2009

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