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Schools hear few answers on local impact of stimulus funds

POSTED: March 5, 2009 10:54 p.m.

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Many burning questions about how $77 billion in federal stimulus funds marked for education will prop up local budgets this year went unanswered in a statewide conference call with State Superintendent of Schools Kathy Cox.

Cox, fresh off a trip to Washington last week to garner more details on when and how school districts can spend federal stimulus funds, held a conference call with local school superintendents Thursday morning in which she outlined a broad plan for dissemination of funds.

“We still don’t have specific guidance,” Cox said of the $2.78 billion the recovery act provided to the state for local systems.
The conference call was originally planned for Monday, but was rescheduled due to snow that caused several school districts to close.

Cox said federal education officials advised her local school districts could expect to see some funds for economically disadvantaged and special needs students in three to five weeks. But Thursday’s conference call, which included officials from the governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, did not reveal many new details on federal red-tape rules regarding how exactly local school boards can spend the money.

Cox stressed the federal government is providing funds to local school systems to help them keep moving forward despite crippling state budget cuts. And she said Georgia stands a good chance of scoring some of the $5 billion in competitive “Race to the Top” grants the federal stimulus is dangling in front of state education secretaries.

According to Cox, Gov. Sonny Perdue has authority over $1.5 billion in state fiscal stabilization funds, and will distribute more than $1.2 billion to cover state budget shortfalls in K-12 and higher education. But Cox said Perdue has ordered those funds to be used only in fiscal years 2010, which begins July 1, and 2011.

“Even though (fiscal year 2009) is bad, I think he’s really worried about (fiscal year 2010),” Cox said.

State Department of Education spokesman Matt Cardoza said state money going to school districts has been reduced nearly $280 million mid year.

The remainder of the state fiscal stabilization funds are to be used for public safety initiatives, but can be used for education at Perdue’s discretion.

Gainesville schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said that portion of funds could have been marked for school renovations and modernizations, but state officials determined they be used otherwise. Dyer said that means she can quit counting on federal stimulus funds to help the Gainesville system fix four leaky school building roofs, which could cost up to $3.5 million.

What will likely trickle down to schools in three to five weeks is at least some of the $712 million aimed at improving student achievement for economically disadvantaged and special needs students. The $712 million will also augment state formula grants benefiting innovation efforts, teacher incentive funds, education technology and homeless students.

As the Hall County school system informs 100 teachers this week they will not be offered contracts for the 2009-2010 school year, Cox said the state and federal government is working “ferociously” to get funds to districts before next school year’s full-time employee contracts must be awarded April 15.

“We know in many of your communities, the board of education is the single largest employer in your community,” Cox told local school officials. “So again, by getting these funds to you quickly, we hope that it will be able to save jobs.”

With 3,500 employees, the Hall County school system is one of the largest employers in Hall County.

Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield said he’s not counting on the federal funds to keep the system’s work force intact.
“I don’t see it saving many jobs,” he said. “It might give people a better picture before they offer contracts.”

Schofield said it is frustrating local school officials still don’t know exactly how the money coming to them can and cannot be spent.
Cox said she and other state officials will seek answers from federal sources for some questions they couldn’t answer during the conference call.

Although local school systems must lock in full-time teacher contracts by April 15, this year local districts aren’t likely to have a grasp on revenue streams such as state allotment figures until April and local revenue figures until May, Dyer said.

“We are not anticipating these stabilization funds to help us with personnel, but it would be worse if we didn’t get them,” Dyer said. “... That would really help us in (fiscal year 2009) if we could use that money to pay salaries this year. Right now, the question is ‘Would that be supplanting?’”

Dyer said “supplanting” federal funds is a no-no. Local school boards are required to fund their systems up to a certain amount, a benchmark called “maintenance of effort.” After that amount is reached, only then can state and federal funds be used. But this year, the local districts do not have the funds to meet that level, and school officials argue that’s exactly why the federal stimulus funds are so desperately needed.

Cox said Georgia will likely ask the federal government for a waiver to relax the state’s required funding levels.

Dyer said state House Bill 455, which passed the House education committee Thursday, would help school boards make more informed personnel decisions by delaying the teacher contract deadline to May 15 for this year only.

“That is huge,” Dyer said. “Right now, we’re wrestling with what figures to put on contracts.”

Rep. Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, serves on the House education committee and is a co-sponsor of the bill.

“It would be unfair to (school boards) to require that they enter into binding contracts with school personnel until they know how much money they’re going to be able to get out of the fiscal year 2010 budget,” Lindsey said.

He said to be effective, the bill must pass the Senate by the end of March.



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