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Schools to start getting stimulus money soon
State OKs allocation of federal funds Tuesday
Gainesville Middle School eighth-grader Jake Bursee, 14, adjusts the magnification of text he reads using a closed circuit television system. Bursee, who is legally blind, uses the reading system to help him read fine print. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Georgia school districts will start to get $665 million of stimulus cash flow now that the state Board of Education unanimously approved the allocation of federal funds Tuesday.

Although local school systems have yet to see the figures register in their bank accounts, the state school board informed systems to expect the injections of money in two rounds this year — half now and half this fall.

For the state’s 180 school districts, the money will help ease budget shortfalls caused by deep cuts in state funding and falling property tax collections. Georgia’s K-12 system is slated to receive up to $1.5 billion over the next two years from the federal stimulus program.

Hall County schools Superintendent Will Schofield said the board’s approval of the funds was a formality and enacted what superintendents have been told to expect all along. While the funds should start trickling into school system bank accounts soon, Schofield said it’s "frustrating" that many rules for spending the money remain foggy.

Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Georgia school districts will receive additional allotments of about $351 million for economically disadvantaged students and $314 million for students with disabilities, according to a news release from the state Department of Education.

Hall County schools are set to receive a total of $4,777,555 in stimulus money for disabled students, $3,618,437 for economically disadvantaged students and $159,111 for pre-kindergarten special-needs students in fiscal year 2010 according to the state Department of Education.

Gainesville schools should receive a total of $1,216,265 for disabled students, $1,468,551 for economically disadvantaged students as well as $40,506 for pre-k special-needs students in fiscal year 2010.

Schofield said Hall County schools plan to use some of the stimulus funds to rehire 10 to 20 teachers who were notified in March they would not be offered contracts for the 2009-10 school year. The rehired teachers would be put into classrooms this fall that serve economically disadvantaged and special-education students. Schofield said other stimulus funds could be spent on technology and tutoring services for special-education programs.

Although the money is welcome, Schofield said the Hall County system is proceeding with caution in how they spend the funds until more rules on spending emerge.

"It’s not like we’re chomping at the bit to get out and spend this money," he said.

Once districts submit their budgets for the stimulus funds to the state Department of Education, they can begin spending the first half of stimulus allotments.

Schofield said the stimulus funds must be spent by September 2011.

Gainesville schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said the stimulus funds will help give the city system a needed financial boost. The system is anticipating a concrete deficit figure, likely around $5.8 million, to emerge from state audit reviews in upcoming weeks.

Dyer said the system is using the stimulus funds to improve teacher quality, provide assistive technology for disabled students, to develop administrative leaders and improve content area methods for economically disadvantaged or disabled high school students. She said the funds will help the system to maintain its faculty while creating new positions for them to fulfill requirements of stimulus spending and improve student achievement.

"We are grateful for everything," Dyer said. "It’s really a time to focus in on a certain problem and deciding what we can do about it."

Dyer said school systems also received more information from the state school board Tuesday on how systems must carefully document and report stimulus spending. She said she hopes to learn more about how systems can set aside stimulus money for personnel in today’s statewide conference call with State Superintendent of Schools Kathy Cox.

The state Department of Education said in a news release the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act also is expected to provide Georgia schools with more than $22 million in education technology grants, more than $10 million in special-needs grants for preschool students and about $900 million in "fiscal stabilization" funds the governor can use for K-12 education budgets.

The state will track how schools spend the stimulus dollars through a central software system developed a few years ago to improve accountability for how schools use federal funding, Cox said. The federal stimulus legislation requires states to keep careful tabs on spending and perform audits to ensure the money isn’t misused.

But Cox acknowledged there could be problems in tracking the general education funding to be doled out from the stimulus package under the state’s K-12 funding formula over the next two years. The state has no mechanism to track such funds, Cox said.

"I am concerned about the other funds in the stabilization grant," she told the state school board.

She said she has encouraged districts to use the money wisely and recognize that it only will last two years.

"Hopefully they can avoid laying people off and they may be able to expand programs," Cox said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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