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In preparation for the 2020-21 school year, the Walker County school board unanimously approved its projected FY2021 budget and released its plans for reopening in the fall amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The budget, which weathered a 10% cut to most state allocated funds, has projected revenues of $85.6 million and $88.6 million in expected expenditures. The district came into the fiscal year with around $4.5 million in reserve which will be used to balance the difference.

"Our mission is to ensure all students graduate ready for college, ready for work, ready for life," Superintendent Damon Raines said. "The mission is what we do every day so we always take a minute to make sure everyone understands everything we do, which includes all of the dollars that we spendall have to reach back to the mission."

In an effort to balance the budget, the district made notable cuts in several areas.

The district will save $120,000 from pausing Project SEARCH, an internship program for students with disabilities.

Raines said that while it was a difficult decision, for the upcoming school year the program was facing a low number of eligible students and COVID-19 created issues with the normal work site, a local hospital. The district hopes to restart Project SEARCH in 2021.

"This is the one we probably struggled the most with because that is such a fantastic program for our students," Raines said.

Additional cuts took $22,500 from webmaster supplements, funds used to support the district's website; and $114,066 from funds budgeted to contract with Ombudsman Educational Services, a system that gives students a way to catch up on credits, as the district looks for ways to provide similar services in-house in the future.

The district will save another $2.4 million by cutting jobs through attrition, meaning jobs left by former employees at the end of last year were left unfilled. While the district made plans to cut around 15 positions in this way prior to COVID-19, the projected budget calls for about 30.

The school board also decided to reduce employees' contract calendar by 10 days, saving around $3 million.

These adjustments, in addition to a decrease in travel expenses and supplements from the CARES Act, resulted in about a $7.8 million reduction in expenditures from last year.

There were also $1.9 million in increased expenditures, including regular infrastructure costs and scheduled salary increases for employees based on years of experience. The district also incurred costs of $105,000 in unemployment benefits and $600,000 in nutrition expenses after schools went online in March, though they hope those two expenditures will be mitigated later through state or federal funding.

Reopening plans

On July 16 the district released its reopening plan, which details the precautions planned to prevent the spread of the coronavirus when students return to school this fall. Precautions include asking parents to check students' temperatures before sending them to school, teachers wiping down common surfaces throughout the day, and cleaning buildings at the end of each school day.

These plans, according to the district, were developed under the guidance of the Georgia Department of Public Health, the state Department of Education and the state-released "Georgia's Path to Recovery for K-12 Schools."

"I can say without hesitation, our motivation and main concern throughout this planning process has been the safety and security of every student and employee placed under our supervision and care each day," reads a statement from Raines in the reopening document. "We want our parents and stakeholders to be confident this has been and will remain our highest priority."

Students and employees are not required to wear masks, according to the document, but it recommends they wear them in situations that make social distancing difficult.

The plan also provides families with a choice between five days of in-person instruction per week or a fully online, remote learning model. The deadline to choose between on-campus or virtual instruction is July 28.

School is slated to begin Aug. 13.

More information about the district, the budget and reopening plans can be found at walkerschools.org.

[READ MORE: Walker County Schools continues work to balance budget]

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