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Gainesville school leaders lay out budget plans, challenges

POSTED: January 14, 2009 11:57 p.m.
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Merrianne Dyer

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Leaders of the Gainesville school system held a "State of the System" address Wednesday that gave parents and teachers an inside look at how education is funded in Georgia.

Merrianne Dyer, superintendent of Gainesville schools, was host to two evening presentations that featured speaker Doug Eza, a finance and human resources consultant for the Georgia Schools Superintendent Association.

Eza explained the finance system for public schools to about 25 parents and teachers who attended the first presentation.

In the Gainesville school system, he said nearly 10 percent of funding comes from the federal government. Dyer said about 42 percent of the system’s funding came from the state and the remaining 48 percent from Gainesville taxes during the 2005-06 school year.

But Eza said local taxpayers are shouldering more costs of
local school systems. Dyer said that in the Gainesville system’s fiscal year 2009 budget, which began July 1, city taxpayers are supporting nearly 49 percent of school expenses.

"The message is public education is the very foundation of the future of this country. And if we allow public education to flounder, I believe the future of our country will flounder," Eza said.

He said he believed the General Assembly’s stealthy blows to the state’s education budget in recent years is putting Georgia communities and the nation at risk. Eza said state austerity cuts have withheld about $4.5 million from the Gainesville system. Already this fiscal year, a 2 percent state cut has pulled about $600,000 from the Gainesville district.

In addition, state cuts are stifling the system’s ability to pay off its estimated $5.6 million deficit. But Dyer said the system remains on track to pay off the deficit by summer 2011.

"I have confidence we will get through this and be better, but we do have some challenging times ahead," Dyer said.

Educators are concerned another state cut is on the way this spring. And they fear additional education cuts of up to 4 percent to 6 percent are in store for fiscal year 2010.

"We need to rely on the citizens to stand up and let the legislature know this is important to them," Eza said.

With property values declining for the first time in the last half century, Eza said it’s crucial that the state reforms its education financing to keep local school systems afloat as the economy continues to sour.

He pointed to the Quality Basic Education Act of 1985 as a good place for legislatures to start reform. Eza said the state’s QBE funding formula has failed to adjust to a 24 percent inflation rate, and still has budget lines for substitutes listed at $40 a day, central office secretaries’ salaries at $15,000 and typewriters at $150 a pop.

Additionally, he said the funding formula designates about $40 for a high school textbook, though a new book for a high school student now costs between $80 and $100.

"What’s happening is we’re digging deeper and deeper into our pockets to be able to provide the same basic stuff," Eza said, explaining that local districts must come up with the supplemental funding required to provide quality education.

He added the Gainesville school board already has adopted its first recourse to state cuts. The board raised property taxes 12 percent last fall. The next plan of action to save money is to lay off personnel, which accounts for 83 percent of the system’s budget.

Tonya Butler Collins, mother of a Gainesville school kindergartner, said she came to the meeting because she’s concerned about how the economy may affect her daughter’s education.

"I need to know how it affects me as a parent with a child in public schools. How much more am I going to have to pull out of my pocket to fund this?" she said.

"It astounded me realizing they haven’t changed the budget scale since 1985. It’s ridiculous."



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