Dalton school system considers ways to save money in face of economic crisis

In this file photo from May 2019, members of the Dalton High School soccer team celebrate their state championship. Ending the Dalton High School day earlier could lead to less missed class time for athletes, as they often have to depart school early to travel to games. Members of the Dalton Board of Education discussed the possibility of altering start and dismissal times at schools in the system during a recent work session. 

With school systems around Georgia instructed to expect at least a 14% reduction in funds from the state for the next fiscal year that begins July 1, Dalton Public Schools officials are already examining possibilities to trim expenses.

For example, while the system planned to move to a three-tier system for arrival and dismissal in 2021-22 when Dalton Public Schools embarks upon a grade and building reconfiguration, the administration could expedite that process to this next academic year, said Tim Scott, superintendent of Dalton Public Schools. It could "save us a substantial amount," so it's wise to at least "start a conversation."

Savings would be accomplished by reducing the number of buses from 40 to 35, said Jeff Wells, safety and transportation coordinator. Currently, elementary schools and Dalton High School end at the same time, with Dalton High School, Morris Innovative High School and elementary schools starting their days within 10 minutes of one another, leading to the need for 40 buses

This year, the system's elementary schools began at 8:15 a.m. and dismissed at 3:30 p.m., while Dalton Middle School began at 7:45 a.m. and concluded at 2:50 p.m. Dalton High School opened at 8:25 a.m. and dismissed at 3:30 p.m., and Morris Innovative High School began at 8:18 a.m. and dismissed at 3:50 p.m.

Because of budget issues so many school systems will have to soon confront, "it's a pretty good time to look at this," said Donnie Reed, owner of OACS, who examined possible transportation inefficiencies for Dalton Public Schools. Reed presented several options for new start and dismissal times at elementary schools, Dalton Middle School, Dalton High School and Morris during a recent Dalton Board of Education work session.

Reed visited each of the system's elementary schools, and he was told that 75-80% of those students are in those buildings by 7:30 a.m. each day, so beginning the day earlier than 8:15 a.m. may not be a major adjustment for most families, he said. If the system tried to push elementary schools to a later start, like 9 a.m., however, "you'd be overrun" with families not knowing what to do with their children early in the morning.

From 1988-1999, Dalton Public Schools ran a three-tier system for starts and ends at schools, said Palmer Griffin, vice chairman of the Board of Education.

Board member Jody McClurg is concerned with starting the high school day too early, because many of those students work late at night and/or play sports that don't conclude until late in the evening.

Starting the high school day earlier and concluding sooner would help with travel for sports, said Stephanie Hungerpiller, an assistant principal at Dalton High who will replace retiring principal Steve Bartoo this summer. "We struggle with kids missing core content at the end of the day" when they have to leave early to travel to games.

Not all students are athletes, so the system should consider the impact on all students, said Don Amonett, deputy superintendent. "Only one out of every six or seven do sports."

Changing the start and end times of the day at Dalton Middle School would also have an impact, said that school's principal, Lauri Johnson. For example, "we share coaches" with Dalton High School, so that could become complicated, and "we do travel a good bit" for sports, so that would also be a consideration.

"There's a lot to look at (and) discuss over the next month," Scott said. The board members hope to vote on any changes in June.

The board members would also like to vote on a budget for fiscal year 2021 in June, but not knowing exactly how much funding the system will receive from the state makes that a difficult proposition, although that 14% estimate "seems like a pretty honest number we can build our budget off of," said Theresa Perry, the system's chief financial officer.

A 14% reduction in state funds would be a $7 million loss for Dalton Public Schools, although the system is receiving nearly $2 million in federal stimulus money, Perry said. Those federal funds can be used for various purposes, from payroll and benefits for employees, to digital learning, to professional development, to curriculum development, to school nutrition, to cleaning.

Fiscal year 2021 budget cuts could include reducing staff work days by 10, she said. That would save the system $3 million.

There are a variety of other possibilities, and no decisions have been made, she said. She will prepare at least one more draft before the board members would vote on a final budget next month.

Having to make painful cuts is "definitely not a place we thought we'd be, but here we are" due to the economic crash caused by the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, said Matt Evans, chairman of the school board. "We're dealing with a tough hand."

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