By Gerhard Schneibel

The Fulton County school system recently announced a temporary measure to reduce the number of workdays for guidance counselors, graduation coaches, psychologists and social workers in an effort not to eliminate jobs in response to an estimated $40 million budget shortfall next school year.

And the situation has since gotten worse.

Board of Education Vice President Julia Bernath of Sandy Springs said she can’t predict what the future holds until the school system gets more details about the federal stimulus package.

“It seems like we’re getting reports every week,” she said. “The governor’s finding more and more bad things about the budget, and we don’t know yet how the stimulus package is going to impact us. We may not know more for a couple of weeks.”

Under the plan to reduce some employees’ workdays, those affected would be paid for 190 days per year rather than the current 205. Teachers already are paid for 190 days.

The change will save the system about $2 million but will not affect insurance coverage, sick leave accrual or retirement plans.

“Some of the counselors, for instance, may be more staggered over the summer months than they are now. It may mean that parents may have to wait a little longer for appointments,” Bernath said. “Some of the job duties that previously have fallen to counselors, social workers, school psychologists … some of that may end up being picked up by other administrators who work on longer cycles.”

Riverwood International Charter High School parent Lynne Miller, the vice chair of the local school advisory committee, said that getting an appointment to see a guidance counselor, graduation coach, psychologist or social worker has not been a problem.

“I feel like the counselors at Riverwood are working very, very hard to accommodate the students and the parents that want to get in to see them,” she said. “I hate to see their hours cut back. … They’re not going to reduce the amount of work they do; they’re just going to cram it into a shorter time.”

Bernath said it seems the “mind-set of the general public right now is people would rather take a cut in the number of hours they work, or even the number of days, and keep their jobs.”

North Springs Charter High School PTA President Terrika Walker said she hasn’t heard any complaints from parents about difficulties scheduling appointments with the affected staff members.

“The changes are relatively new, and I don’t think we’re in a position yet to make any assessments as to what it is going to mean for us,” Walker said.

Laura Dobbs, the legislative chairwoman of the North Fulton PTA Council, said Fulton schools have been “ahead of the game” in employee-to-student ratios for social workers and psychologists compared with Cobb, Gwinnett and DeKalb counties.

“I am quite sure that the school system and the various departments will make quite sure that no student will be impacted by these decisions,” she said. “I think every parent needs to understand that these are just tough times.”