The fiscal shortfall is driven by the coronavirus crisis. As part of its CARES Act emergency funding, the federal government sent Georgia nearly half a billion dollars to help. So far the Georgia Department of Education and the state school board are releasing $411.5 million to school districts, keeping the remaining 10% for administrative costs and a rainy day fund.
The money helps, but doesn't make up for the likely state cuts. Before Kemp's announcement Wednesday, Fulton County Schools' allocation was expected to equal about a third of the 14% state cut. DeKalb County's federal aid was closer to half that previously projected state cut. In Taliaferro County, where Allen Fort runs a one-building school district with 180 students, the federal money totals $118,000. That is a little over half of what he expects an 11% state cut to cost his district.
The federal money helps “tremendously,” Fort said, but his local economy is faring worse than the state’s, so he can’t call on local taxpayers to fill the void.
His district has about a million dollars in the bank, but it took at least a decade to build that up and he doesn’t want to blow through it too quickly, since no one knows how long the economic downturn will last. He calculates that furloughing teachers would save $6,000 a day, so he would have to shorten school by about three weeks to balance his budget that way.
On top of all that, if he opens his buildings in the fall, he figures he will have to buy a thousand gallons of hand sanitizer, not to mention masks and disinfectant for the routine cleansing that is required under new public safety guidelines.
“So how are we supposed to make it up?” Fort said of the cuts. “We can’t print money.”
Many districts may also see higher costs for busing if they elect to school students in shifts to reduce the head count and increase social distancing. Technology expenses for online learning are also expected to rise, for an unfortunate collision of costs and cuts.
Some school advocates are likening the situation to the budgetary crisis of a decade ago, but it is not that bad yet.
Those cuts came atop nearly a decade of state “austerity” budgets that slashed funding. So schools were already weakened by the time they hobbled into that economic downturn, said Angela Palm, a longtime state lobbyist for the Georgia School Board Association. Then the cuts kept coming year after year, and the first was larger than what is expected now.
“It’s going to be challenging,” Palm said, “but it’s not as bad as the Great Recession.”