Schools, Medicaid face 3 percent cuts

Perdue stresses need of 2010 budget deal that also hits teachers' pay.

Public schools and Medicaid will face 3 percent cuts to their budgets, and teachers face three unpaid furlough days as state leaders move to fill a $900 million gap in the 2010 budget.

Gov. Sonny Perdue on Tuesday announced that he and top lawmakers have struck a deal that allows them to avoid a special legislative session —- for now —- and provides the governor flexibility to tackle the latest in a string of severe cuts.

Most agencies will face a 5 percent budget cut. Some will be higher; some lower, Perdue said. Every state employee, meanwhile, must take three furlough days before the end of the calendar year, he said.

These moves are anticipated to keep the state's 2010 spending levels equal to fiscal 2009, which ended June 30 and featured more than $2.8 billion in cuts from the year before. The reductions announced Tuesday will bring Georgia to a budget level nearly equal to that of 2005.

But, as Perdue pointed out, an additional 1 million people live in the state today as compared to four years ago.

"We have to live in the reality of the moment," Perdue said during a news conference from his Gold Dome office. "These steps are necessary and prudent to make sure we keep our commitment to Georgia taxpayers and allow us to give the most services to our citizens through the money we're able to obtain."

Perdue and legislative leaders are likely to face some push-back on their decision to furlough teachers and cut k-12 budgets. Even Perdue said he is not sure he has the legal authority to order teachers to take unpaid leave. While teachers are technically state employees, they work under contracts with local districts.

Still, furloughing teachers provides a boost to the budget: Officials estimate that every day the state's teachers are not paid saves $33 million.

Local districts were still absorbing the news Tuesday afternoon and were not sure how they would proceed.

"We'll consider the best options for our district and our schools," Susan Hale, communications director for Fulton County schools, said. "We don't have a solution yet."

Cherokee County Schools will begin furloughs next week, Superintendent Frank Petruzielo said.

"I've already sent something out to our principals telling them to get hold of the teachers they thought were going to be there on Monday and Tuesday and tell them they've got two more days off."

Cherokee teachers will take two furlough days next week —- when they'd normally be planning for the coming school year —- and another day in November.

Petruzielo said Cherokee County will also lose $4.8 million in funding.

Perdue, perhaps sensing the delicate nature of the school cuts, had a conference call with local superintendents from around the state Tuesday to break the news and explain the seriousness of the situation.

"They're all very appreciative of the heads-up and are understanding of where we are," Perdue said.

State Schools Superintendent Kathy Cox seconded that motion.

"It saddens me that our economic situation is so dire that further reductions to education funding must be made, but I appreciate that the governor and Legislature have done everything they can to cut education less than other areas," Cox said in a statement.

Still, she said, implementing the cuts will be difficult.

"I will be working with local superintendents so we can minimize the impact these budget reductions will have on student achievement," she said.

Meanwhile, other agencies must begin to scramble for deeper cuts. Only the Department of Mental Health will escape reductions, because the agency operates under an agreement with the Justice Department to correct deficiencies in mental health hospitals.

Every other agency must assume a 5 percent cut but produce plans for dealing with a 4 percent, 6 percent or 8 percent cut.

Dealing with the crisis in this fashion, Perdue said, allows him and his staff to be precise in their cuts and not make across-the-board decisions.

All of this is being done with the hope, but without certainty, that these cuts are the last.

"That's not to say we won't have to go deeper," Perdue said. "This train is not going to go down forever, and predicting when it's going to reach the bottom of the hill is not an exact science, and it's not a pretty art."

Staff writer James Salzer contributed to this article.