Requested budget cut could mean $1.6 billion less for Georgia schools

The deep budget cuts that Gov. Brian Kemp is requesting from state agencies to compensate for economic losses due to the coronavirus pandemic could cost jobs or pay in school districts across Georgia, some education leaders said Friday.

The 14% cut to the amount the state would send to schools next year is higher than many had expected. Kemp's budget office and legislative budget leaders sent word to agencies Friday to develop spending plans cut by that amount.

The Georgia Department of Education tallies the proposed cuts for the fiscal year starting in July at $1.6 billion.

Since pay and benefits for teachers and other personnel typically comprise most of school budgets, payroll could take a hit in most places, except for communities with a wealthy local tax base or a big cushion in the bank.

“It’s either going to be cutting staff or furlough days,” said Bronwyn Ragan-Martin, president of the Georgia School Superintendents Association.

She was in an hourlong meeting with superintendents across the state Friday morning when the budget memo hit their inboxes.

They had been expecting big budget cuts, but the number on most minds was closer to 10%, she said. “Everybody’s scrambling right now.”

State school Superintendent Richard Woods, who leads the agency, had no comment Friday about the effect of trimming that much from an enrollment driven state allocation that was going to total $11.7 billion.

The big metro Atlanta school districts are not ready to say what it will mean for them.

“Too early,” said Brian Noyes, spokesman for Fulton County Schools. The district administration is in the budgeting process and will discuss it with the school board Tuesday, he added.

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The superintendents association recently polled members, and about 80% said they had already signed contracts with teachers obligating them to jobs for the next school year. Those districts will not have much choice about which positions to cut, Ragan-Martin said. Superintendents will mostly have to cut positions that were already being vacated, either for retirement or resignation, she said.

Public schools are funded by a mix of local, state and federal dollars. The state and local tax revenue comprises the bulk of their budgets, with the proportion varying by community. In some places, the amounts are similar; in poorer areas, the state money is the largest share. Federal dollars are typically minimal, around 10%.

The COVID-19 crisis is changing that.

Word of the cuts comes as the Georgia Department of Education applies for nearly a half a billion dollars in federal aid from a recent emergency appropriation by Congress known as the CARES Act.

That doesn’t come near to covering the proposed state cuts, though.

Ragan-Martin, the state superintendents association president who is also superintendent of Early County in south Georgia, is anticipating $800,000 in CARES money. The requested budgt cut will cost her district about $1.8 million, she said.

“So that’s a million dollars that we’re going to have to cut somewhere,” she said. “It is a little more than was expected.”