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Editorial: State budget offers welcome relief for schools
Fiscal 2019 spending plan ends austerity cuts, addresses growth
05042018 DEAL BUDGET
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal prepares to sign the 2019 fiscal year state budget at the Georgia State Capitol building in Atlanta, Wednesday, May 2, 2018. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

It’s now official: Georgia schools will be fully funded according to the education formula that has been in place for years.

The state’s fiscal 2019 budget was signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal this week. Among the $26.2 billion in state spending is $9.9 billion for the state’s public schools, $166 million more than originally budgeted, based on the state’s increased revenue projections.

The Department of Education’s Quality Basic Education program has been in place since 1985 but has not been implemented completely in recent years. The formula is used to determine how much state money each public school district in the state receives, with additional funds allotted proportionally to help to smaller school districts with a limited tax base. Education advocates and a commission chaired by the governor that included Hall Superintendent Will Schofield and Times columnist Dick Yarbrough have recommended updating the formula, and that may be the next big reform. For now, providing a full share of money to disperse is a good start.

Schools took a hit during the recession at the end of the last decade that forced the state to apply austere budget cuts to all spending to maintain a balanced budget, as required by its constitution. Years later, with the economy now growing and tax money again flowing in, those days of skimping and scraping thankfully may be over.

Since 2003, Hall schools have lost more than $152 million due to limited state funding while its enrollment numbers continue to rise. Gainesville schools’ total shortfall has been more than $37 million with a record number of students. That led to shortened school calendars, larger class sizes, elimination of programs like art and music and the tapping of reserve funds. Both systems have taken great pains not to increase school tax rates to keep pace with student growth, technological needs and building maintenance. That’s why Schofield likened the restoration of full QBE funding to “getting an early Christmas present.”

That’s not to say schools have everything they need. Even as the state has boosted spending, a growing student population creates additional challenges for districts like Hall, Gainesville and others. As recently discussed, finding enough money to replace aging school buses is one of many additional expenditures needed.

And the new budget does not include pay raises for the state’s 200,000 teachers, though it does include an additional $361 million for teacher pensions. Pay levels need to be addressed next before teacher retention becomes a more serious problem. This spring, teachers in several states have resorted to protests and walkouts seeking to boost pay and benefits. We don’t want to see Georgia teachers following suit.

Debates over school funding are not new. Some in education may never be satisfied with what the budget provides, even if K-12 education is the state’s largest expenditure. During tough economic times, the tax money just wasn’t there, and state leaders can’t run a deficit and charge it to the future as they do in Washington.

And even with funding restored, school leaders are obligated to spend money wisely, eliminate waste and not spend more than necessary on administrative jobs that take resources better spent directly on students in the classroom. This is especially the case for some of the larger metro school systems with bloated bureaucracies in place.

In recent years, studies showed Georgia’s spending per student ranked 38th in the country and some $2,000 below the national average of $11,009. Even with full funding for QBE, the state must explore new and better ways to pay for student education to meet growing student enrollment and educational challenges.

Quality education is vital to keep the state’s economy growing. New businesses and industries need a trained, educated workforce for jobs best filled by Georgia graduates. Companies looking to locate here want good schools for their employees’ children.

That’s why keeping schools up to date with growth is perhaps the state’s greatest priority, and this year’s budget is a major step in that direction. Without good schools, Georgia’s economic foundation will collapse like a house of cards.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.

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