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Where does school budgets' money go? Salaries
Labor costs take biggest chunk of local systems' spending
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School budgets by the numbers

Hall County Schools

• Number of schools: 35
• Total budget: $297,122,528
• Federal programs: $33,668,767
• General fund: $222,364,396
• Other (includes debt service): $41,089,365

General fund expenses

• Instruction: $146,614,545
• Pupil services: $7,791,877
• Improvement of instruction: $3,785,631
• Library/media: $3,993,339
• General administration: $660,080
• School administration: $13,615,307
• Business services/collection fee: $1,237,369
• Maintenance and operation: $14,643,609
• Student transportation: $11,815,650
• Support services: $4,444,887
• English as a Second Language: $600,000
• Child care: $205,189

Gainesville City Schools

• Number of Schools: 8
• Total budget: $77,127,795
• Federal programs: $8,719,108
• General fund: $60,160,414
• Other (includes debt service): $12,58,864

General fund expenses

• Instruction: $46,858,130
• Pupil services: $2,042,455
• Improvement of instruction: $713,073
• Library/media: $1,072,030
• General administration: $1,354,409
• School administration: $4,171 375
• Business services/collection fee: $859,150
• Maintenance and operation: $6,034,041
• Student transportation: $3,209,700
• Technology/support services: $1,812,163
• Clubs and activities: $450,000

The larger a number is, the less meaning it sometimes seems to carry.

When you think of a small number like five, it’s easy to picture it exactly in your mind — maybe you see five apples, or five pencils, like the ones you used learning to count as a child. You can picture, not just what looks like around five or so, but exactly five. As the numbers grow larger, the picture becomes less exact.

When thinking of the number 27, you may be able to visualize 27 of something — say pennies — in your mind, but you have to think a little harder to be sure that you are picturing exactly 27. If you try to imagine a big room filled with 268 people, the picture becomes even more approximate; it’s more convenient to think of a range of numbers, like 250 to 300.

This is what can make the flow of tax dollars hard to comprehend. Even relatively small tax-funded entities deal with huge numbers. If it’s difficult to picture 268 of something, then forget trying to imagine 294,122,528 — the number of dollars allotted for the Hall County School District’s budget for fiscal year 2015.

Where those dollars go — and where they come from — is governed by a complex set of rules set by multiple outside entities. Schools are funded by local, federal and state tax dollars. Within these sources of funding, dollars are allocated to specific programs, such as special education, that can’t be spent on anything else. Dollars not allocated to a specific program are mostly spent according to laws governing things like class size.

“With each pot of money,” said Hall County Schools Deputy Superintendent Lee Lovett, “come different strings.”

Those strings, according to Lovett and Gainesville City Schools Chief Financial Officer Janet Allison, don’t leave much leeway in determining how school funds are spent.

Many of those regulations, and the largest chunk of both school systems’ budgets, have to do with instruction.

“There are two things that control you on spending money,” Lovett said. “One, the salary schedule is dictated by the state ... in addition to that, the class size is dictated by the state.”

Since the state regulates class size, school districts cannot choose to cut spending by just sticking more students in the classroom. The state also determines what teachers are paid.

Allison said a typical teacher in the Gainesville system, one with a master’s degree and 10 years’ experience under the same state-regulated salary schedule, would cost the district around $78,000 in benefits, including payroll tax, retirement and salary.

The number $78,000 may seem like just a drop in the bucket of the district’s $81,467,386 budget, but once you subtract funds specifically for federal programs such as school nutrition and multiply the number enough times to fill each classroom of the district’s eight schools with teachers, you wind up with a large percentage of the district’s discretionary budget going toward teacher salaries.

The instruction category, which consists primarily of teacher salaries but also includes instructional supplies and services such as textbooks and tutoring, makes up about 78 percent of the Gainesville system’s general fund budget, or $46,858,130. Labor of every sort, Allison estimates, makes up more than 80 percent of the budget.

While instruction takes up the bulk of the systems’ discretionary budgets, other big expenses add up when applied to an entire school system over the course of a whole year.

Electricity and natural gas for Hall County, for example, is budgeted at $3,115,000 for Fiscal 2015. That’s a big chunk of change, and it’s the largest single expense after salaries and benefits. But it’s only 1 percent of the overall budget for all funds.

By contrast, Lovett estimates personnel costs make up three quarters or more of the general fund budget. Other large expenses more than $1 million include $2,440,950 for gasoline, or 0.8 percent of the budget for all funds, and $1,727,760 for instructional computer software, or 0.5 percent.

The overall budgets for each district are divided into separate funds for items like federal programs and debt repayment. The main operating budget is the general fund, which is set at $222,364,396 for 2015 in Hall County and $62,140,824 for Gainesville.

“The general fund is the main fund that the public is concerned about because that’s where ad valorem (property tax) goes,” Lovett said.

The fund for 2015 in Hall is made up of 38 percent local sources including ad valorem, 61 percent state sources, and 1 percent federal sources. The bulk of federal funding goes into specific federal program funds, such as pre-kindergarten immersion, and is not added to the overall operating budget.

State regulations over the use of state funds and the operation of public schools dictate how much of the general fund is allotted. For all school districts in the state, the Georgia Department of Education allocates a certain amount of money per child, using a formula that takes into account factors including number of special education students and the wealth of the local tax base.

Along with the rules governing class size and salary schedule, the state requires that a certain amount, which is calculated based on both state and locally sourced funds, be spent only on direct instructional costs. The remainder of the general fund is also subject to state regulations, and compliance with those regulations is checked by audit. If the audit reveals money was misspent, the district faces monetary penalties.

Other funds, particularly federal funds, are governed in different ways. All these rules mean there are more administrators at the local level, and the administration of federal funds is sometimes itself federally funded.

Patty Robinson, the director of Early Literacy and School Improvement for Hall County Schools, is one of those administrators. She said each federal program — Hall County lists 18 on its budget summary — has its own set of rules on how the funds allotted for it are spent. Noncompliance could mean financial penalty.

“We keep file cabinets full of documentation,” she said. “Each (federal program) is specific in nature, so the funds that we receive go to that (specific program).”

Before being allotted the funds, which are paid as a reimbursement, the school district has to draw up a plan that shows strategy and resources, among other things, for each federal program.

In Hall County, federally funded programs make up about 11 percent of the total budget, or $33,668,767. In Gainesville, it’s $8,719,108, also 11 percent of expenditures.

In both districts, the largest of these federal programs is by far the school nutrition program, which totals $19,049,041 in Hall County and $3,786,355 in Gainesville.

But even with the high costs of services that get the students to school, keep them fed and ward off the soupy Georgia heat, both Lovett and Allison stress the biggest costs of running a school district are the costs associated with keeping the schools staffed with the teachers, librarians, secretaries, bus drivers, coaches, counselors, nurses, administrators and all the other people who make the difference between an empty building and a place where children can receive an education.