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Editorial: School budgets feel the squeeze

Local districts struggle to hold the line on tax rates while personnel costs keep rising

POSTED: May 19, 2017 1:00 a.m.
ERIN O. SMITH/Times file photo

Kiersten Kliesrath, 9, Kade Hawthorne, 9, Addison Sheppard, 8, and Aliyah Peck, 9, work on their laptops earlier this month in Courtney Chambers' third-grade class at Riverbend Elementary School in Gainesville.

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Hall County taxpayers got good news from their school district this week, but it comes with a big asterisk moving forward: Don’t count on your taxes staying low if things don’t change.

Hall schools’ next fiscal year general fund budget of $263 million includes no tax hikes for county residents, and a small drop in the millage rate. But the increased cost for teachers and other personnel taking greater share of school budgets each year makes that tax rate “unsustainable” in the future, according to Superintendent Will Schofield.

More than $11 million of the Hall district’s $13 million in new spending is going to personnel costs, including $6.5 more in benefits and $4 million for a 2.5 percent pay increase. For Gainesville, those new costs total $2.3 million. In addition to pay hikes, districts face rising costs for employees’ health insurance and retirement plans.

The more the districts have to spend for pay and benefits, the less they have available for infrastructure improvements and repairs, learning materials, etc., some of which must be funded by special purpose sales taxes that can’t be used for personnel costs.

Combined, the two districts spend about 85 percent of their budgets on employee salary and benefits, Hall with about 3,400 people on its payroll, Gainesville about 950.

Schofield sounded the alarm knowing that if funding from the state and federal governments doesn’t increase, local districts like Hall’s will have no choice but to raise taxes to balance their ledgers.

“Unless there’s a new stream of funding or we come up with some new models that cut costs, it certainly will require cuts in other places,” Schofield said.

The problem isn’t, as often thought, that local governments are being frivolous with taxpayer money. It’s also not that teachers and school employees are greedily lapping up dollars that should be spent elsewhere. After years of stagnant pay and growing demand to raise standards, they’ve more than earned a modest pay raise.

The failure in this case is by governing bodies in Washington and Atlanta who continue to pass more of the funding burden down to local officials, even as they strut and high-five over their ability to keep taxes and spending low at their sacred halls. The fact those expenditures just get shuffled off to someone else never seems to show up on campaign flyers listing their many accomplishments.

It’s the very definition of “unfunded mandate.” School systems, particularly those in growing areas with increasing numbers of students, must find a way to absorb the extra costs even as the money from the state and federal levels doesn’t keep pace.

Georgia boosted education spending in its new budget by about 6 percent, including a 2 percent pay raise for teachers, in an overall budget of $94 billion for K-12 public schools, some 37 percent of state spending. But those increases merely restored funds that were cut following the recession of the last decade and haven’t kept up with the pace of growth. That leaves districts scrambling to break even or, in the case of Hall and others, to tap into reserve funds to meet needs.

Those systems are under increased pressure to maintain classroom success with experienced, talented educators. Teachers train hard to meet the growing demand of the current testing and evaluation standards, and deserve to earn a competitive salary. Schools have lost too many good educators to other private sector industries over the years and need to recruit and retain the best ones to prepare students properly.

And, by the way, forget the antiquated notion that teachers “get the summer off” and therefore don’t deserve such pay; those idle summers of yore, such as they were, have given way to near constant mandatory training and educational efforts when classes are not in session. It’s a 12-month job with few breaks in and out of the school year.

Georgia’s method for funding local districts established in the 1980s is overdue for reform, but recommendations by a panel assembled by Gov. Nathan Deal have yet to be acted on by lawmakers. As a result, schools are not being fully funded even by that outdated plan.

On average, local districts receive about 10 percent of their funding from the federal government, the rest divided among local taxpayers and state funds, though it varies across the country.

At some point, priorities must be set and the share of funding must be more equitable, particularly for those districts in impoverished areas that don’t gather enough revenue from local taxes to get by. It does little good to have federal or state taxes cut or held steady if we wind up paying more to local governments to fund items like education.

As with many governmental claims of something being “free” or taxpayers being spared, it simply forces another elected body to do the dirty work.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor; you can use this form or email to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.



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