Educators, lawmakers do math on Deal plan

Educators were sifting though Gov. Nathan Deal’s budget Thursday and wondering how the numbers add up to no more unpaid furloughs or school-day cuts for Georgia public schools.

Deal pledged in his first combined State of the State and budget address Wednesday to make k-12 a top priority, in part by ending teacher furloughs and restoring the traditional 180-day school calendar that many districts have shortened to save money.

The budget Deal is recommending to legislators would send $30 million extra to cash-strapped school districts. That's $60.9 million less than they are owed under the Quality Basic Education Act, the state’s enrollment-based school funding formula, but more than they've gotten in recent years.

"It was a much better budget than we've been accustomed to," said Angela Palm, director of policy and legislative services for the Georgia School Boards Association. "He put away the hatchet and took out the paring knife."

Deal's budget proposal for fiscal 2012 includes nearly $7 billion in state funds for the Georgia Department of Education.

However, it doesn't include money to replace $140 million in federal stimulus money that went to education in 2011.

But in his address, Deal said most local school systems last fall received some of the $322 million that was sent to Georgia last fall under the federal Education Jobs Bill, on top of the other stimulus money. And he said that should have allowed local school systems to set aside local funds for the 2012 budget year.

Educators and lawmakers said Thursday they are unclear whether Deal's no-furlough pledge is predicated on districts having banked local funds equivalent to their share of the jobs bill's money.

"I think we're all waiting to hear from his office on how they arrived at this and what their thinking was," Palm said. "I don't think it's anybody's inclination to say, ‘You're not doing what you say you're doing,' or to pick a fight."

Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said districts were instructed to set aside money after receiving their share of the $322 million in federal money.

"As the money was distributed to local school districts by the state, the state told them, ‘Use this money now, set aside your local funds you were going to spend for the future,' " Robinson said. "If they did as instructed, they should have more money than they did last year."

Sen. Fran Millar, R-Atlanta, former vice chair of the state House Education Committee, said he's not sure all of the school districts put away money, as Deal suggested.

“If people are taking that money and putting it all into payroll, which I’m afraid some have done rather than putting it aside for a rainy day fund, then there’s probably going to be a problem,” Millar said.

He said some of the lingering questions could be answered when Deal speaks to a joint House and Senate budget panel on Tuesday.

Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, a member of the House Education Committee, said it’s impossible to generalize how every district in the state has managed its federal stimulus money.

“There is so much diversity in districts across the state,” Setzler said. “Districts in rural areas that rely more on state funding are going to have a harder time.”

Districts that did not plan for this, however, probably should have, he said.

“The difference here, though, is this is something that has been anticipated,” Setzler said. “These are not cuts and shortfalls that popped up out of nowhere as when this recession started. This was something we forecast last year knowing the fiscal stabilization money wouldn’t be there. I’m hopeful districts were judicious in their planning last year.”

Alan Essig, executive director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said he was trying Thursday to answer the question: "Did the majority of the school systems use the money to backfill 2011 so there wouldn't be furloughs in 2011, or did they really plan and kind of split it 50/50?"

"I think the governor's statement assumes they did a 50-50, and that's a big unknown," Essig said.

Districts had a short deadline to spend the federal money and did.

Gwinnett, the state's largest school system, received $30.9 million from the education jobs money and put it to teachers’ salaries and benefits for the current school year. But the system held back an equal amount of local money to use in 2012, said school system spokeswoman Sloan Roach.

Fulton County Public Schools received $16 million, which was directed to offset salaries and benefits for the current school year as the state budget office recommended. The district kept $10.6 million in local money for 2012.