How Kemp’s proposed $1,000 bonuses are distributed to school employees

The Atlanta school board approved $1,000 bonuses for all school employees at a meeting this week. The district will use $3.3 million from its general fund balance to pay for the salary bumps. (Bita Honarvar for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Bita Honarvar

Credit: Bita Honarvar

The Atlanta school board approved $1,000 bonuses for all school employees at a meeting this week. The district will use $3.3 million from its general fund balance to pay for the salary bumps. (Bita Honarvar for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Gov. Brian Kemp recently announced he planned to use about $202 million of the state’s $16 billion reserve fund to give Georgia public school employees a $1,000 retention bonus.

However, the process isn’t as simple as it might seem.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has attended several school board meetings and interviewed local administrators and education policy experts to determine how the money gets into employees’ bank accounts.

Here’s a breakdown:

No legal mandate

A Dec. 18 press release from the governor’s office said he “announced a state employee retention pay supplement of $1,000 for each of the roughly 112,000 state employees and 196,000 educators and school support staff across the state.”

However, Stephen Owens, education director at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said districts aren’t legally required to spend the money on bonuses.

“(The announcement) is an expectation of how districts — who have a lot more autonomy than we’d like to believe — would spend money,” Owens said.

That’s due to a 2008 law that allows districts to sign “flexibility waivers” with the state. School systems have freedom from some state requirements in return for improved performance measures, like test scores and graduation rates.

“I think of (the bonuses) like providing my kids an allowance,” Owens said. “If I say, ‘You really should get a haircut’ ... they know that that’s not an order, but it comes with that pressure of, ‘Oh, Dad thinks I need a haircut.’ The state is essentially ... giving an allowance and saying, ‘You should do this.’”

Distributing the money

The process isn’t as easy as the governor making an announcement and then sending checks to employees. Instead, the money is distributed through the state’s school funding formula, which allocates funds based on student enrollment and student-teacher ratios.

Owens said the state funds about half of Georgia’s teaching positions.

“So every time there’s a raise or bonus ... if the true dollar amount that’s publicized is actually to be given to all employees, local funds have to cover the rest of it,” he said.

Big districts pitch in

That’s especially true for big metro Atlanta districts, like DeKalb, Fulton, Gwinnett and Atlanta Public Schools, which employ many more workers than the state funds. For instance, the state pays for one school psychologist per every 2,137 students, but the school districts have more on their payrolls. The same is true for social workers.

“We earn (state money) for 22 psychologists,” APS Chief Financial Officer Lisa Bracken told the school board this week. “We fund many more than that. We earn (state money) for 22 social workers. We fund many more than that.”

Bracken said APS received about $4.9 million from the state and decided to chip in $3.3 million from its general fund to give all employees a $1,000 bonus.

The district initially told its staff a $1,000 year-end stipend paid by local funds in December would take the place of Kemp’s proposal. That prompted pushback from teachers and State Superintendent Richard Woods, who penned a letter to APS interim Superintendent Danielle Battle urging her to reconsider, which the district eventually did.

In DeKalb, the school board also approved $1,000 bonuses for full-time staff. Some part-time workers and substitutes will receive $500. The district received $9.9 million from the state and used more than $3.3 million from other state and federal sources to fund the bonuses.

Fulton County’s school board approved a similar plan this week. The district received $8.8 million from the state and contributed more than $4 million in American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds and money from the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL) to ensure staff receive the $1,000 stipend.

Beyond Atlanta

Owens said some metro districts can afford to help fund the bonuses due to significant growth in their property tax digests. It’s a different story for other systems that can’t depend on that revenue, he said.

“It hurts and strains the Claytons, the Jeff Davises, the Quitman counties of this world,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they won’t (give the bonuses). It just means that the money’s got to come from somewhere and there are a lot of pressures on the budget.”

Staff writer Cassidy Alexander contributed to this article.