Full school funding gladdens metro districts

While metro Atlanta’s school districts will gladly receive significant funding boosts for the 2018-2019 school year after Gov. Nathan Deal pushed to end a school funding deficit, they have few specific uses already earmarked for the sudden funding increase.

Nearly $10 billion of the state's $26.2 billion budget will go toward educating the state's 1.7 million children, up more than a half million from the previous year. Georgia's Quality Basic Education formula spells out how much state money each district should receive. Since 2002, however, "austerity" cuts meant schools have gotten less than the formula calls for. The upcoming school year will be the first since then with full funding.

For years, the deficits meant slashing major programs, increasing class sizes and even cutting the number of school days in the calendar year.

“At the end of Great Recession, (the DeKalb County School District) had cut (retirement) contributions, implemented a reduction in force, cut expenses and put in up to 12 furlough days,” DeKalb County School District officials said in a statement Wednesday. Some of that was restored from the worst days of the Great Recession, but not all.

According to Claire Suggs, a senior education policy analyst with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, about $1 billion was cut from school funding each year between 2010 and 2014, during the Great Recession, forcing some schools to rethink programming and increase class sizes as districts lost about 10,000 teachers across the state.

Deal's increased projection of how much tax money the state will take in next year allows lawmakers to finally close the QBE funding gap, which had been narrowed over recent years to $167 million.

The biggest impact could come in smaller districts, which rely most heavily on state funding.

“Those cuts, quite frankly, inflicted a lot of pain on those districts,” Suggs said. “Whatever the cut was, it was applied equally across all districts. In these smaller districts, if you’re depending on the state to supply 70 percent of your funding, (losing) 7 percent hits you harder.”

Suggs said, “Valuable progress has been made, but there are some outstanding issues that need to be tackled.” She cautions that “significant costs” taken on by school districts over the past 15 years will continue to play a role as budgeting continues. For example, the state decreased its contribution on pupil transportation and no longer pays some health care costs for nonteachers.

Sid Chapman, Georgia Association of Educators president, said in a statement that fully funding education has been a top priority in local communities he’s visited across the state.

“We have always heard from our members on the lack of resources available,” he said. “This challenge needs to be addressed from both the legislative and economic development fronts. We are pleased to see that now the legislative commitment will be fulfilled. Affected communities will continue to need assistance in helping to build their commercial base so monies are also available from their end.”

Atlanta Public Schools will receive roughly $3.7 million, according to the district. Spokesman Ian Smith said the money will be allocated to the general fund.

A district statement Wednesday said, “Atlanta Public Schools is appreciative of Governor Deal’s decision to restore K-12 education funding after nearly 16 years of payment reductions, especially given the demands on our school system including rising costs in the teacher retirement system, pension, and sustaining investments in our strategic priorities.

Fulton County is supposed to receive $7,074,663 in “austerity restorations for FY 2019 from the Quality Basic Education program,”said Robert Morales, the district’s chief finance Officer. “Our records show, since 2003, our district has lost roughly $398 million because of state austerity cuts. We are currently in the FY19 budget process and elated the governor has chosen to restore money to our district and fully fund QBE.”

Cobb County Schools expects an additional $10 million. Since 2002, the district was shorted $586 million through austerity cuts. The district is still short some 860 instructional staffers since cuts began. “Possible uses of those funds are being discussed, but no decisions have been made,” spokesman John Stafford said Wednesday.

DeKalb County school officials said Wednesday they’ve estimated their increase at $9.7 million, which would be used for general-fund operations.

Cherokee County School District anticipates $4 million, and likely uses are “class size reductions and school safety and security enhancements,” said Barbara P. Jacoby, a spokeswoman for the school district.

But Jacoby noted another bill could cut some taxes that schools get. It is House Bill 327, is a measure designed, in part, to equalize car taxes and cut the cost people pay when they move into the state and register vehicles. Some money from those taxes flows to school systems. However, the bill is tabled in the Senate, and Thursday is the last day any legislation could pass.

Forsyth County expects an additional $4,175,464 which is less than 1 percent of the school district’s general-fund budget, said spokeswoman Jennifer Caracciolo. She added that the funds will likely go toward staffing due to an increase in the student population and two new high schools opening in the fall.

Douglas County Schools is still finalizing plans for its $2.7 million in restored funding.

“Our focus will remain on decreasing class size, increasing funds used for maintaining our buildings and setting aside money to install safety software at all our high schools,” said spokeswoman Portia Lake. “Our immediate plans are focused on adding: 21 teachers, three more assistant principals, five more special education teachers and an additional school police officer.”

School funding boost

Here are the additional amounts metro Atlanta school districts expect since the state budget fully funds the Quality Basic Education formula for the first time in years.

APS 3,545,850

Cherokee 4,012,568

Clayton 5,234,490

Cobb 10,157,676

Coweta 2,117,006

DeKalb 9,792,323

Douglas 2,720,428

Fayette 1,962,985

Forsyth 4,177,257

Fulton 6,941,274

Gwinnett 17,545,074

Henry 4,105,155

Paulding 3,007,247

Rockdale 1,771,662

City Schools of Decatur 527,939

Marietta City Schools 858,136