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State education funding under the microscope
Report says state will provide less funding
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A nonprofit organization that tracks Georgia spending and policies by state leaders is warning school districts to prepare to “face growing financial pressures.”

As school districts prepare to develop their budgets for the coming 2017-18 fiscal year, the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute predicts that more than $500 million promised by Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposed $9.4 billion education budget to fund student programs will be eroded because the state plans to shift other funding responsibilities back to local schools.

In a recently released report, GBPI says the state budget will offer $166 million less than what the school funding formula requires, will have school districts pay $30 million more to cover health insurance for bus drivers and other non-teaching staff, and force local schools to shoulder a portion of rising retirement costs and funding for student transportation.

“Continued (state) underfunding leaves districts short on funds to hire teachers and reduce class sizes, restore programs cut due to slashed budgets, provide coaching or other professional development to teachers, or offer other key supports for students,” the report claims.

However, Hall County School Superintendent Will Schofield doesn’t agree with GBPI’s assessment.

“A proposed $500 million increase for K-12 education represents a massive increase in funding,” Schofield told The Times on Tuesday.

Schofield estimates the Hall County school district would stand to receive $5 million to $7 million above the current funding level, if the proposed budget is approved.

“We will not be cutting any programs,” Schofield said.

Chris Griner, finance director for the Gainesville school district, said he expects to see more district spending to cover health insurance costs for classified employees, along with contributions the district makes for teacher retirement. He said these costs have been increasing in recent years.

“These increases will be factored into our budget planning,” Griner said. “Since we are still in the initial stages of planning, we do not know the ultimate impact … though we do not anticipate any program changes based on our current reserve position and previous conservative budgeting.”

GBPI applauded the state education budget allocating $160 million for teacher pay raises and the elevating of a first-year base salary of a teacher with a bachelor’s degree to $34,100 from $33,424. However, the group warned of a double-edged sword.

“The pay bump promises a step forward for teachers but it comes at a price for districts,” according to the GBPI report. “School systems cover the full cost of Social Security and Medicare taxes on teachers’ salaries and will pay about $12 million more if the salary increase is adopted as proposed.”

Schofield, came out in support of Gov. Deal and Georgia policymakers. He said that unlike the federal government, the state must balance its budget.

“I appreciate the fact that our state ... fund(s) a myriad of public services for its citizens,” Schofield said. “It is the job of our governor and state legislature to seek to do that in a fair and equitable manner. It is my belief they have.”