Funding heads list of Gwinnett schools’ legislative wishes

Gov. Brian Kemp poses with the Georgia Gwinnett College mascot during the 2019 Gwinnett Day at the Capitol. COURTESY OF GEORGIA GWINNETT COLLEGE

Gov. Brian Kemp poses with the Georgia Gwinnett College mascot during the 2019 Gwinnett Day at the Capitol. COURTESY OF GEORGIA GWINNETT COLLEGE

With the Georgia Legislature’s next session a little more than a month away, school systems across the state are deciding what they’ll seek from the Capitol. Gwinnett County Public Schools revealed its legislative priorities at the November board meeting.

“Each year, the Board of Education presents its legislative priorities to the Gwinnett Delegation as a way of helping them to understand the district’s stance on a number of issues as we believe education will continue to be an area of focus for the General Assembly,” said district spokeswoman Sloan Roach. “Our 2020 priorities cover four broad areas — funding, fiscal and school improvement initiatives, governance and local control, as well as several long-standing positions.”

The list didn’t veer far from last year, with funding issues being a major concern.

“We want to ensure that funding stays stable and that no funding is reduced,” said Jorge Gomez, executive director of administration and policy, during the work session before the main board meeting. “We don’t want to backtrack into the years of cuts.”

The state provided a one-time $69 million allotment in 2019 for school safety and security, and Gwinnett would like to see that happen again.

Gomez pointed out that Gwinnett employs 96 in-school police officers and funds a safety and security budget of $10 million.

Other funding requests include cost-saving measures for the health benefits plan. The state currently provides no funding for employees other than teachers who elect health insurance coverage the district provides, according to the district. Gwinnett paid $67 million for this expenditure in fiscal year 2019 and costs are rising every year.

“While health insurance is a needed component of running an effective school system, we are concerned with the extenuating costs and are asking for some relief in that area,” said Gomez.

While early learning initiatives are a growing concern across the state, Gomez pointed out that lottery funding supports pre-K learning for a limited number of students. Gwinnett will urge the Legislature to review the research on the impact of early learning programs and provide the fiscal resources needed to implement effective programs and practices.

With Gwinnett short more than 100 bus drivers to date, the school district is urging the General Assembly to fund pupil transportation at a level that eliminates the gap between state-allotted funding and the actual costs. According to Gwinnett records, it will receive $5.8 million this fiscal year for transportation, which costs the school system $91 million. That breaks down to a 6.4% contribution.

New this year, Gwinnett is seeking clarity on an issue that arose last year: allowing retired teachers to return to teaching full time.

“There is the issue of funding the teacher retirement system, and some work needs to be done in that area,” said Gomez.

Currently, teachers aren’t allowed to work more than 1,000 hours a year at a Georgia public school under the Teachers Retirement System of Georgia. Also, they must wait at least one month before coming back as an independent contractor or any other agreement.

Retired teachers are allowed to work full time at private schools, schools in other states, other positions in the private sector, self employment and temporary employment for a Georgia public school for a maximum of three months in a fiscal year.

Another priority is opposition to vouchers and tuition tax credits, said Roach.

Board member Louise Radloff indicated that she wants to add funding for mental health counselors.

And board member Everton Blair asked about constituent input.

“We gather input throughout the course of the year,” said Gomez. “We get feedback from the different schools at area board meetings — if there is a concern from constituents we try to find a way to work it into the priorities.”