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Latest state budget cuts include schools
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Gov. Sonny Perdue ordered more cuts to the state’s budget Tuesday, including at least three furlough days for all state employees.

Anticipating a $900 million shortfall in state revenues, Perdue mandated a 5 percent reduction in spending for most state agencies and a 3 percent reduction in funding for the state’s Department of Education, beginning in August.

The state’s Medicare and Peachcare programs also face 3 percent funding cuts under the changes. Because of requirements to improve the state’s mental health system imposed by the Department of Justice, that agency was spared from the cuts, said Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley.

In the coming days, each state agency’s budget will be amended in "ongoing dialogue" between heads of state agencies and the state office of Planning and Budget, Brantley said. Department heads will have to present spending plans that show 4, 6 and 8 percent reductions in spending. Until the final cuts are made, however, most state agencies will have to absorb a 5 percent loss in funding.

"The hope is this is the last time we’ll have to make reductions like this, but obviously, there’s no guarantee of that," Brantley said.

The cuts announced Tuesday take Georgia’s spending back to the level it was in 2005, when the state had about 1 million fewer people. Perdue said the reduction was necessary to deal with plummeting tax collections amid the weak economy.

"The sooner you begin these actions, the more effective you can be," he said.

The reductions come with an additional three furlough days for all state employees, including teachers. But state agencies that have already implemented employee furloughs may not furlough employees more than 12 days a year, Brantley said.

In a conference call Tuesday afternoon, Perdue told the state’s school superintendents that staff will have to take three furlough days between now and January, said Hall County schools Superintendent Will Schofield.

Perdue does not have the authority to mandate furloughs, said Brantley, but the governor does intend to withhold funding equal to a three-day furlough for school staff and other state employees on top of the mandated spending cuts.

Brantley said the governor suggested superintendents cut noninstructional days such as preplanning and teacher work days from teachers’ salaries.

"We know those days are important, but when you’re weighing all the different options out there, those days are certainly not as important as the instructional days," Brantley said. "We think that’s a preferable way (to cut spending) instead of more cuts to QBE (Quality Basic Education, state funding based on enrollment)."

Schofield said Hall County’s teachers and administrators will be furloughed on some preplanning and professional learning days, but the superintendent said he does not yet know which days.

The 3 percent cut equals about $3.4 million for the county school system, Schofield said. The cut announced Tuesday likely will cause the school board to delve further into its $5.6 million surplus, he said.

"We’re glad that we’ve been conservative and kept a reserve fund balance through this whole economic time," he said. "We’re going to sit around and come up with the next round of worst-case scenarios."

Gainesville schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer, who is managing a system with a $3.6 million deficit, said the 3 percent cut in funding is a real blow to the district, equalling about $746,754.

To manage the additional loss in revenue, unfilled positions in the city school system may have to remain vacant longer, she said.

Shannon Adams, Jackson County schools superintendent, is managing a system that has a $1.6 million deficit. He said he would like for the system to eliminate its deficit within one year, but with the latest cuts, that seems unlikely.

"If the revenue’s not there, it’s not there," Adams said. "That’s going to be devastating to us. ... How much longer can you cut without hitting the meat of instruction?"

With personnel making up about 85 percent to 90 percent of school districts’ budgets these days, Schofield said the state cuts will have a definite impact on school staffing. He said the Hall County school system has been slow to hire back teachers laid off this spring because school leaders were anticipating further state cuts.

The cuts to education spending, though hard to swallow, were necessary to keep the state’s budget afloat while revenues continue to sink, said state Rep. James Mills, R-Chestnut Mountain.

"The governor is making necessary cuts during this time of recession, and the last area anyone would want to cut would be education, but that’s how desperate the times are," Mills said.

The decisions announced Tuesday may have spared the General Assembly from holding a costly, time-consuming special session, Mills said.

A specially called legislative session would have taken weeks of preparation and may not have been the best way to deal with the state’s immediate budget needs, Brantley said.

"That doesn’t necessarily say that there can’t be a special session, but the hope is that these decisions are enough to put the budget in a place we can be real confident that the budget’s balanced," Brantley said.

While Mills said that he felt the governor took the "wisest" action Tuesday, he acknowledged that a special session may be the only option in the future, Mills said.

"As long as we’re only looking at a billion dollars or less ... I think it’s manageable," Mills said.

Like Mills, state Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, said Tuesday’s announcement was the best decision for now.

"It’s the action that we have to take right now," Rogers said. "It’s like government agencies are having to do what private businesses have had to do for the last 12 months. Unfortunately, it’s the sign of the times right now."

But Rogers’ opinion differed from Mills’ as to whether the state General Assembly should have decided the cuts in a specially called legislative session. He said cuts in spending should be made at the legislative level, not in the executive branch.

"(A special session) would only take a couple of weeks — probably a week or 10 days — in the hearings, which I’m glad to do at no expense to the state," Rogers said. "...We as a legislative body, we need to be back in session is what I think."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.