At the first day of the inaugural 1Dawson Learning Academy, participants got an in-depth look at the operational side of the school system as topics of employment, energy efficiency, nutrition, safety and finance were discussed during the informal meeting.
“Our goal today and next week is to really provide you with operational information about the school system but more importantly hopefully prompt some questions about how we operate,” said Superintendent Damon Gibbs.
Those gathered at the Professional Development Center Sept. 11 learned the behind the scenes information from the human resources, finance, facilities and maintenance, transportation, operations and nutrition departments.
Due to the nature of human resources and finance, Chief Human Resource Officer Lisa Perry explained that the two departments work closely together.
Perry and her assistant Jenna Brown are responsible for the 315 certified staff and 226 classified staff members of the school system and working with the Finance Director Jamie Ulrich’s four-person department to ensure they receive salary and benefits.
Of the $47 million general fund budget that was set earlier this year, 85 percent of the budget goes directly toward salary and benefits.
“We spend $50 million a year and we have 540 employees. We have six total employees that deal with those two areas,” Gibbs said.
The finance department has a reputation for excellence as it is one of 11 districts in Georgia that have received the Award of Distinction for Excellent Financial Reporting from the Georgia Department of Audits for the past five years.
The breakdown of the budget sparked a discussion about the current use of ESPLOST and the lack of flexibility, something Gibbs has said is a hindrance for small districts like Dawson County.
“The money that we earn in the single one penny ESPLOST we can’t spend on salaries and benefits. That’s a huge problem for us,” Gibbs said. “We’ve been working with our legislature for the last couple years asking for some flexibility in our funding.”
Representative Kevin Tanner (R-Dawsonville) brought legislation before the house last year that would allow for more flexibility in ESPLOST funds, but it was killed on the floor.
Though Dawson County schools have seen a 6 percent increase in student enrollment, the first substantial growth in 10 years, the current facilities are still far from maximum capacity.
“We’re just fortunate that the school system built ahead of the curve in 2008 when the growth absolutely stopped. The school system is ready for growth,” Gibbs said.
Allocating a portion of the ESPLOST revenue could help offset the maintenance costs not currently covered under ESPLOST regulations.
Director of Facilities and Maintenance Scott Morgan provided information on several projects his department has completed through the use of ESPLOST funds.
The activity fields at the elementary schools saw upgrades with new equipment. A new entrance to Hightower Academy was created, giving the campus its own entrance. The new JROTC building, new tennis courts, the guard shack and the Performing Arts Center along with new lighting for the stadium, softball and baseball fields and the installation of field turf at Tigers Stadium at Dawson County High School were built with ESPLOST funds. A car rider line at Robinson Elementary was constructed to help the flow of traffic. RES also received a new roof this summer.
System-wide upgrades include upgraded flooring, window tinting and security measures such as the new buzz-in system, upgrades to the media centers (now called student learning commons) and a new keying system that ensures new keys cannot be created for the campuses by anyone other than school officials.
Gibbs said that he would like to be able to use a portion of current ESPLOST funds to help offset maintenance and operation costs such as purchasing fuel for the 60 bus fleet.
Jim Rich, director of transportation, broke down some of the costs associated with maintaining 60 buses.
Due to the size of the county and number of roads inaccessible to buses, bus drivers currently traverse 617,000 miles per year, eating up 82,000 gallons of fuel. That amounts to $200,000 in fuel costs.
Should legislation pass to change the current constraints of ESPLOST allocation, portions of transportation and maintenance costs could be covered, but that may never happen.
It is an issue that Dawson County will continue to advocate for at the capitol, Gibbs said.
“There’s a good chance that it will never happen. We’re optimistic,” said Gibbs. “We’re not going to stop having the conversation because we think it should be a local decision.”