For 49 Walker County teachers next week will be the last time they see the 506 seniors graduating from LaFayette and Ridgeland high schools.
For those 49 teachers, it will be termination rather than commencement week. A combination of factors is the reason why these educators will not return to their classrooms for the 2013 school year.
"This is my 40th year in education and this is probably the most stressful and difficult in trying to balance the budget," said Dr. Ed Combs, the school system's director of personnel. "Our problem is that we've been able to hold off so long that it appears worse than it is."
Revenue provided by the state to help fund local schools has been in freefall for several years. As a stopgap measure about $3.5 million in reserve funds was used to bolster the 2012 budget.
At the same time, the cost of health insurance has skyrocketed, as have requirements to fund employee pension plans. The system's share of paying health insurance premiums increased this year and is expected to rise substantially next year, the year after that and the year after that, Combs said.
Herbert Garrett, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association, describes the situation as a perfect storm.
"You add all those things together and it's just a major, major issue for systems to deal with," he said.
The result, now seen as inevitable, for Walker County is that 49 of its teachers will not have their contracts renewed for the 2013 school year.
Over the past decade, Walker County School System has sustained reductions in state funding of more than $35.5 million, according to Combs. Cuts of nearly $7.2 million are projected for the coming year. In total, the legislature has reduced education funding in Walker County by about $42 million since 2003, he said.
"We've kept saying 'Surely it will get better next year,' but it hasn't," Combs said. "My fear is that it will only get worse."
No school has been spared losing full-time special education and classroom teachers, but other, less lethal cuts also will be made during the 2012-2013 school year.
While those being laid off will suffer most, every employee - administrator, teacher, coach, cafeteria worker, janitor - will feel some pain as the financially pinched system incorporates eight work reduction days in the coming year.
"Basically, it's a day that you don't work and don't get paid," Combs said. "It affects everyone from top to bottom."
Referring to the unpaid days as work reduction days rather than furloughs for accounting purposes, administrators say that each systemwide reduction day saves about five classroom teaching positions.
The point of having fewer or no reduction days has passed, according to school officials. State funding cuts have been exacerbated locally by there being about 300 fewer students today than in 2009. That is because not only are there fewer dollars to dole out statewide, a system's share is based in part on average daily attendance.
"The shame of all this is that these are not numbers, facts and figures. These are kids and their teachers," said Combs.