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Proposed education spending adds to calendar year, but not much else

POSTED: January 26, 2014 11:49 p.m.

Under the proposed state budget, children may spend a full 180 days in public school and teachers 190. 

Unfortunately, many of those teachers and students will still be in overcrowded classrooms.

“I think the big takeaway is that while there has been some additional value added, and that will provide some relief to districts, we’re still facing significant cuts,” said Claire Suggs, senior education policy analyst with the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute. 

The institute, a politically independent organization, analyzes the state’s budget and tax policies.

The total 2014 education budget sits at $9.1 billion; if passed, the 2015 budget is $9.6 billion. Nearly $8 billion of the total education budget comes from state funding.

Gov. Nathan Deal outlined the major differences in his Jan. 15 State of the State address, touting the fact the majority of anticipated new revenue — 82 percent — is going to education, with 68 percent of those revenues going to K-12 education.

“It does not restore the (full) funding formula,” Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said. “With full restoration of the formula, it would restore the full calendar year and class sizes and the full teacher salaries.”

Even with the extra funds, the institute says school districts continue to face cuts between $700 million and $800 million.

“I don’t see how districts are going to have enough money to increase the calendar and rehire teachers to bring class sizes back down or to restore the programs that have been cut,” Suggs said. “It’s a little bit. It helps. But we’ve got a long way to go before funding is fully restored.”

Maximum class size numbers in the Hall and Gainesville school systems have increased slowly over the past few years and also vary depending on grade level. 

For example, the state recommends a kindergarten class should be 18 to 20 students. Normal kindergarten class sizes in the Gainesville system are 20 to 23 students. In Hall County, they’re 20 to 25 students, depending on whether there’s a full-time paraprofessional in the classroom.

Class sizes go up through high school, with a maximum of 35 in Hall, though not all reach that number. The Gainesville system tries to maintain a high school class size in the mid-20s.

“I remember recommending cutting 128 positions,” Hall Superintendent Will Schofield said. “It was brutal back in 2008.

“We’ve slowly restored a number of those positions as the years have gone by and cut in other areas, but the bottom line is there’s a couple more children in classes in average class sizes than there were in 2007.”

Schofield said it’s a very different economic situation today than seven years ago. He’s pleased with the proposed 2015 budget, and plans to address restoring the full calendar year at today’s school board meeting.

“From my perspective, I’m extremely pleased that the state’s budget includes the additional $314 million reduction to austerity,” he said. “I realize we’ve all had to go through those tough times together, and I just appreciate seeing some relief for next year.”

That $314 million is about 57 percent of the proposed additional $547 million to education funds in the budget. Forty percent, or $213 million, goes to cover student enrollment growth, teacher salary increases, increases in retirement costs and other routine increases.

Suggs said there’s really nowhere else to cut in the budget to provide further relief for schools.

“There is no state agency that has not cut dramatically in recent years,” she said. “They’re still well below 2008 funding levels. The notion that we can look to other agencies to define new dollars for education. ... I just don’t see how that can happen.”

And while local property taxes have gone up, she said the state’s tax policies, enacted in the 1990s during an economic boom, haven’t helped in alleviating the cuts.

“As long as the economy was booming, that was enough to make up ... what would have been the loss in revenue,” she said. “But during down times, that hasn’t been the case.

“In fact, if we had those kind of tax policies, if we were paying the same proportion of our income tax and state taxes (that we were in the 1990s), we would have over $3 billion this year of additional state revenue.

“I think it’s a combination of yes, the recession, but also our tax policy is no longer in line with the needs of our students,” she said.

Dyer also pointed out the governor is up for re-election.

“The danger is in the rhetoric in talking to the press and talking to people,” she said. “It sounds like he’s promising more than they can deliver. Being an election year, that’s the idea, but it would just be a fallacy to say we’re returning to pre-2008 funding levels.”

However, the extra funding overall is seen as a step in the right direction.

“It’s a step forward and it will bring a little bit of relief to districts,” Suggs said. “Anything will help, but they haven’t solved the problem. That’s really what it comes down to.

“The state is pushing forward with a lot of new policies in education. We have new performance standards coming online in English and in math, the new teacher and school leader evaluation systems, a new data system, a new accountability system ... and all of these are really promising policies. But I think it’s really questionable whether or not we have the resources in place to actually support the effective implementation of those policies.”


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