By Matthew S.L. Cate
In his three years in office, Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue has cut more than $1.2 billion in state K-12 education spending, a figure his Democratic opponents won't soon forget.
When he kicked off his re-election campaign last week, Georgia Democrats signaled their plan to use those cuts to paint him as an executive who will ignore education needs if voters choose him again.
For each of the governor's campaign stops, Democrats offered detailed accounts of how much nearby schools have lost since the governor's 2002 election, and they said local property taxes have often risen as a result.
"I think the voters do think it's an issue. It points to his lack of commitment to funding Georgia schools," Georgia Democratic Party spokesman Emil Runge said Friday.
But as the gubernatorial campaign heats up, school officials and political observers said they don't think the tactic will resonate with voters the way Democrats hope.
Dalton State College political scientist Ken Ellinger said the governor can effectively argue the cuts were part of an overall strategy to keep state operations going without significantly raising taxes.
"Everything had to be cut across the board," he said. "Had there been a Democrat in the governor's chair, many of the same sorts of things would've had to be done."
Gov. Perdue became the first Georgia GOP governor since Reconstruction in part because of a wave of support from teachers angry at then-Democratic incumbent Gov. Roy Barnes. He'll likely face the winner of the Democratic primary between Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor and Secretary of State Cathy Cox.
The governor did push through an increase in tobacco taxes in 2003 and unsuccessfully sought to raise taxes on alcoholic beverages. But most of his budget balancing relied on spending restraints.
In all, the six school districts in Catoosa, Dade, Walker and Whitfield counties have lost more than $36 million in state K-12 formula funding since 2003, according to the Georgia Department of Education.
Sometimes, school officials said, that meant not filling vacant teaching positions. Other times it meant calling for higher property taxes and drawing into reserves meant for emergency spending.
But whether that will make voters angry enough to boot Gov. Perdue is unlikely, they said.
"It may cost the governor some votes," Whitfield County School Board Chairman Chuck Oliver said. "But all things considered, the state's done a lot of the best it could."
The Whitfield County system saw an $11 million cut, according to state figures.
Though the cuts forced him and other board members to make tough decisions, Mr. Oliver said the budget crunch likely taught local and state-level agencies valuable lessons.
"A lot of dead wood was probably trimmed away because of it," he said.
Walker County schools saw the region's second largest reduction with an $8.5 million cut. Over the years that loss led to fewer filled positions and a property tax increase, School Superintendent Roy Sapough said.
"But I don't think the average person looks beyond the local level," he said. "They blame locally."
Mr. Runge said Democrats will continue to call attention to the K-12 state cuts. He said Democrats expect it to help defeat Gov. Perdue when he faces either Lt. Gov. Taylor or Secretary of State Cox, the two leading Democrats facing off in the July 18 primary.
He said bad revenues are no excuse to cut important education budgets, something he said previous Democratic administrations avoided when they faced tough times of their own.
"Democrats have found ways not to cut K-12 schools. Gov. Perdue has," he said.
The Associated Press reported last week that school superintendents from 22 school districts accused the governor in a letter of playing "political football" with education, in part by offering teachers a 4 percent raise while continuing the austerity cuts.
No Northwest Georgia superintendents signed the letter.
As the governor campaigned in Dalton on Thursday, he reminded supporters of the fiscal turnaround he's directed and that more than 70 percent of the new spending in the 2007 budget will go toward education.
That same budget, which he is expected to sign this week, also includes an additional $170 million in K-12 formula cuts.
Asked if he would restore the funds if he were re-elected, the governor would not say.
"It's a political year, and people are going to make comments about a lot of different things," he said.
He again reminded reporters he turned a $640 million deficit into a more than $500 million surplus and touted tax relief created and extended on his watch.
"I think the people of Georgia will think that's a great economic and fiscal record on which to run," he said. "We'll lay those facts out for people, and we think they'll be well responded to."
Jim Franklin, a former state school board member who attended the campaign stop, said he thinks voters will be more likely to reward the governor for the turnaround than penalize him for education cuts.
"Money does not educate children," he said.
Even so, Gov. Perdue and GOP lawmakers this year put hundreds of millions of dollars for some education programs in the 2007 budget, including new money for school buses and classroom expansions.
Mr. Sapough said the new money will help Walker County schools pay for six new buses.
"But, of course, we're 26 buses behind," he said.
E-mail Matthew S.L. Cate at email@example.com
School funding cuts
Cuts to K-12 funding since 2003 in some local school systems:
Catoosa $8.4 million
Dade $2.2 million
Walker $8.5 million
Whitfield $11 million
Chickamauga City $1.1 million
Dalton City $5.3 million
Total statewide $1.25 billion
Source: Georgia Department of Education