Nearly a half-billion dollars in federal aid could be coming to Georgia schools by mid-May to supplement their costs for educating students during a pandemic.
Normally it would seem a hefty sum, but if the economy stumbles into recession, then school districts say they will still have to cut deeply unless Washington sends more. And they’ll be doing that while trying to maneuver through the obstacles created by the coronavirus this semester.
“It’s tough when you need to look at possible budget reductions but also provide enough resources to meet the increased needs of your students,” said Kenneth Dyer, superintendent of schools in Dougherty County, an epicenter of COVID-19 deaths in Georgia.
His extra costs now include the bonus he pays kitchen staff and school police officers to deliver food to students, plus the masks, gloves, face shields and digital thermometers they need.
The Georgia Department of Education is applying this week for more than $457 million in federal subsidies that Congress allotted to schools as part of the CARES Act, the $2 trillion economic stimulus package approved in March.
Georgia’s portion amounts to about 5% of the roughly $10 billion in state money allocated to schools, which are typically funded about equally by state and local tax revenue plus a little extra from the federal government. Most of the federal money is for schools with larger proportions of poor students, and this rescue package is being distributed with the same formula.
Dyer, who runs a smaller district of about 14,000 students, is anticipating $7 million, about 5% of his core budget.
The larger districts in metro Atlanta would get more. Gwinnett County, the largest of the state’s 180 school districts with 180,000 students, expects around $33 million. Fulton County, with half as many students, is expecting nearly $19 million.
These numbers are preliminary and may change slightly, the state education agency said.
>>The coronavirus has forced parents to become teachers while they do their own day jobs. What are your plans if social distancing mandates continue until fall, and there are no summer school activities or camps for your child? Tell us about it at CoronavirusEducation@ajc.com
Typically, federal money can only be used for a narrow set of approved expenditures, but in this case, the uses are wide open, said Matt Jones, chief of staff for state school Superintendent Richard Woods. Schools can use the money to cover any of their coronavirus costs since March 13.
“These are probably the most flexible federal funds we have ever received,” Jones said.
Schools can use the money for hazard pay; device purchases, internet service, printing and subscriptions for remote learning; cleaning and disinfecting buildings; counseling, nursing and therapeutic services; extra pay for teachers for the extended sessions that schools hope to hold once it’s safe; teacher training; and interventions for at-risk students. They can even use the money to avoid furloughs, pay cuts or reductions in busing and other services due to future budget cuts, the state education agency said.
COMPLETE COVERAGE: CORONAVIRUS IN GEORGIA
The half-billion dollars will be helpful but won't be near enough, said Stephen Owens, an analyst with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a left-leaning advocacy group that calculated last week that the state could be facing at least a $4 billion budget shortfall through the next fiscal year, which starts in July.
During the Great Recession, so-called “austerity” cuts lopped a billion dollars a year off state funding for schools, he said. “If that were to happen again, plus these additional costs for closures, the effect would just be devastating.”
School leaders already suspect as much, and they are waiting apprehensively for the Georgia General Assembly to resume budget deliberations paused in March for the public health emergency.
Fulton County Superintendent Mike Looney said he anticipates using the federal dollars “to offset anticipated revenue reductions.”
Dyer, the Dougherty superintendent, has put at least $15 million in renovation and construction projects on hold and said he expects more cuts.He said he won’t touch “mission critical” positions for teachers of younger students and those for counselors and social workers. The two groups must make up for lost learning and address trauma. His region was hit by a couple of tornadoes several years ago and was still trying to recover from Hurricane Michael when the pandemic started.
“It’s a lot for adults,” he said. “It’s certainly a lot for children.”
MONEY FOR SCHOOLS
How the federal CARES Act dollars could be distributed. Some school districts would use the money for remote learning and meal delivery, while others would save it to shore up budgets should revenues fall.
District — preliminary calculated amount
Atlanta — $21 million
Buford — $439,000
Cherokee —$3.4 million
Clayton — $16 million
Cobb — $14.7 million
Decatur — $284,000
DeKalb — $34.5 million
Forsyth — $1 million
Fulton — $18.9 million
Gwinnett — $33.3 million
Marietta — $1.5 million
Source: Georgia Department of Education and school district officials