Last week Gov. Nathan Deal increased revenue projections for 2019 fiscal year by nearly $200 million and allocated an additional $166 million toward the state’s education budget.
This sudden influx of money means the state Department of Education’s Quality Basic Education program, a formula used to determine funding for each public school district in the state, will be fully funded for the first time since the program’s inception as law in 1985.
Filling the funding gap
Cumulative QBE school funding formula shortfall for state fiscal year budgets 2003-18
Hall County School District: $152,806,776
Gainesville City School System: $37,675,470
Source: Local school districts, state budget and Georgia Budget & Policy Institute
That’s a big deal for the Hall County School District and Gainesville City Schools System.
Hall schools have been shortchanged more than $152 million since the 2003 fiscal year as austerity cuts and inadequate QBE funding added up.
During that same timeframe, Gainesville schools faced a shortfall of more than $37 million from the state.
“The cumulative cut since 2003 amounted to $9.2 billion in lost school funding (across the state),” Claire Suggs, a senior education policy analyst with the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, said in a statement to The Times.
Schools responded by shortening school calendars, increasing class sizes and cutting art and music programs.
“Hall and Gainesville school systems dealt with the recession-era budget squeeze by shortening the school calendar from the 180-day standard, increasing class sizes and dipping into reserves,” Suggs said. “Both systems also furloughed teachers.”
Times were indeed tough for local school districts. Many teachers and staff were laid off, and salaries were also reduced in some cases.
Hall Superintendent Will Schofield said the state funding shortfall was exacerbated by the Great Recession, which produced austerity cuts to transportation, criminal justice and health care spending in addition to reductions to public education.
“The reality of it was ... there wasn’t as much money to go around,” he added. “It was painful ... some of the hardest days of my professional career.”
Gainesville Superintendent Jeremy Williams, who assumed his post last year, said he knows the city school system dealt with funding cuts by absorbing positions where possible, such as not filling spots left by retirees and transfers.
“Austerity hit everyone,” he said.
Schofield said the Hall County Board of Education was pressed to slowly raise its tax rate to cover not only the state’s shortfall, but corresponding growth in student enrollment.
This also included a $20 million reduction in the overall school budget during the height of the recession.
“We did what we had to do to keep the doors open,” Schofield said.
Williams said the Gainesville school tax rate has fluctuated but remained relatively stable as the district managed funding cuts in other ways.
“In my opinion, we’re always accountable to the taxpayers,” he said.
In recent years, state lawmakers have slowly been restoring funding to public education.
The additional funds Deal announced last week will, among other things, help support the opening of the Cherokee Bluff high and middle schools this coming fall, which Schofield said would likely cost $5 to $6 million, without having to dip into reserve funds.
Schofield said fully funding the QBE for the first time this year has him feeling like “I’m getting an early Christmas present.”