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First-class schools a challenge for Georgia
Budget cutbacks have educators searching for fresh ideas
Centennial Arts Academy fifth-grade teacher Linda May collects her students' Criterion-Referenced Competency Test booklets April 21 after a morning of testing. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Education systems, from pre-kindergarten through higher education, will face troubling times in the upcoming years.

It will take strong legislators and school board leaders to tackle concerns with budget, student achievement and the transition between high school and college. Tough times are ahead, but it also is an exciting time for new opportunities.

"No time in public education has the writing on the wall said so much ‘we need to be willing to change with the times,'" said Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield. "We're looking for better ways to serve the children — and they may look familiar, may look different."

In Hall County's schools, changes include more technology in the classroom, video conferencing across schools and dual enrollment with colleges.

"Whether or not the economy picks up, it's a variable, and we need to be committed to serving the boys and girls," Schofield said. "Leaders cannot be the defenders of the status quo. We're constantly asking how we can do it better and differently."

The main concern for school board members stretches across the government and business spectrum: budgeting and saving money.

"The budget is going to be a problem and going to get worse in the next couple of years," said Steve Dolinger, director of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a nonpartisan group that helps educators across Georgia understand the challenges ahead. "Sales taxes and property taxes are still going down ... 90 percent of school budgets are based on salaries and benefits, and there are no quick fixes."

Georgia will spend about $10.3 billion on education in fiscal year 2011, reaching from preschool to college systems, which accounts for more than half of the state's budget. At the local level, state funds pay for 45 percent of the total, local funds pay for 47 percent and federal funds support 8 percent of the budget, according to Georgia Department of Education statistics.

More cuts — including a recent cut in June — took stimulus funds from schools to balance the state fiscal 2010 budget. For Hall County Schools, this means $250,000 less for this fall already. Local superintendents may see another 3 to 5 percent cut during the school year.

Though districts such as Hall County and Gainesville have cut back in all places and are using furloughs to avoid cutting staff, Dolinger said layoffs may be "inevitable" in coming years.

"Many schools have used their reserves and can't fall back on them," he said. "They're afraid of operating in the red, and unlike the federal government, they can't print money and must have a balanced budget."

With declining budgets come the questions about student achievement: How can standardized test scores be maintained and even raised with fewer resources, less instructional time and less support?

"It's hard to see the short-term results, but the long term, especially in poor schools, shows that students need more resources to close the achievement areas," Dolinger said. "In Georgia, we're generally still getting better each year."

School board members will have to target their local data "as much as they can."

"At a minimum, look at how ready the kids are for school," he said. "How well can they read at the third grade and do math at eighth grade? What are the numbers graduating from high school? Their role is to look at the balanced approach and not just look at the bottom line."

Tied to student achievement scores, school officials are increasingly studying graduation rates and how to get students to the next level of education.

"Georgetown University studies reiterate that jobs from 2008 to 2018 will require some college education," he said. "School board members should look at the graduation rate and where their students are going. How many students need remediation, and how well are they prepared for college?"

Higher education institutions are taking up their role of preparing high school students as well. But with higher enrollments and increasing budget problems, keeping quality education is the main issue.

This is especially true for technical colleges as students seek a faster path to jobs, said Mike Light, executive director of communications for the Technical College System of Georgia.

In fiscal year 2009, technical colleges across the state enrolled 156,000 students. The numbers increased to 190,000 this year.

"It's fantastic, but something to address as well," he said. "We don't think enrollment increases will drop off anytime soon. The big issue is to continue delivering the programs students need while state leaders grapple with budget issues."

As federal stimulus dollars for education run out and fiscal year 2012 looks even more challenging, budgeting concerns will require especially creative ideas. For technical colleges, pushing out more qualified students directly correlates to the number of educated employees who can find jobs and help repair the economy.

"It's clear how vital we are," Light said. "Students coming out of high school want the skills to get to a job quickly, and we're becoming one of the first choices for students out there. It's no longer your daddy's old trade school."