Georgia schools face more cuts

Georgia schools face more cuts

May 15th, 2012 by Kevin Hardy in News

Northwest Whitfield students prepare to board a bus after school Monday. North Georgia schools will cut their budgets for the 2012-13 school years.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

CUTTING MORE

Some of the ways schools in North Georgia are absorbing cuts in funding and increased spending mandates:

Catoosa County: Will continue five-day furlough program; already down in personnel and up in class size.

Dade County: Will lose 15 teachers and parapro-fessionals and cut drivers education and alternative school programming.

Dalton City: Already down more than 50 positions and down 10 teacher work days.

Walker County: Will lose 49 teachers, including 21.5 special education teachers and 27.5 classroom teachers.

Whitfield County: Already cut 150 jobs and enacted 10 days of furlough.

Source: School systems

Walker County Schools officials say they had no choice but to lay off about 50 teachers this year as Georgia continues to tighten the reins on education funding, leaving local school systems to make grim choices on what public education in the state will look like.

Districts statewide have or are determining how to take on their share of $1.14 billion in austerity cuts for fiscal year 2013. In place since 2003, those cuts have left deep holes in schools' pocketbooks. Collectively, public education in Georgia has missed out on $5.5 billion in funding since 2003 because of the General Assembly's austerity cuts.

But next year will be even more financially challenging, as school systems take on increased costs in the state's teacher retirement program and rising contributions to insurance plans for other staff members.

"It's somewhat of a perfect storm," said Herbert Garrett, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association. "You add all those things together, and it's just a major, major issue for systems to deal with."

As in years past, North Georgia systems will cut programs, lay off teachers, enact or continue furlough days and shorten the school year for students in attempts to absorb the cost of funding cuts and mandated spending increases.

Because most of a school system's budget is tied up in personnel, many systems have looked to decrease staffing levels to balance their books. Such moves result in larger class sizes and fewer programs.

Garrett said school leaders haven't had to hand out pink slips in recent years, instead relying on natural attrition to reduce employees. But with the funding picture reaching a tipping point, that's not always possible, with many systems now getting rid of existing employees.

"The [funding decreases] have been in place for so many years and they've gotten so massive that it's impossible to deal with without making dramatic cuts," Garrett said.

PEOPLE, PROGRAMS GONE

Walker County infused its 2012 budget with $3.5 million in reserve funds in hopes that next year's budget picture would brighten.

But it didn't.

Through natural attrition and layoffs, the school system will lose 49 teachers, including 21.5 special education teachers and 27.5 classroom teachers. Some schools will lose art or music teachers, though they may be replaced by computer instructors who can be paid with federal dollars.

Employees also will see eight work-reduction days next year, similar to furloughs.

"We've tried to hold off as long as we can. Now we're to the point where we need to do this," said Ed Combs, director of personnel services for Walker County Schools.

The lost teachers will result in about two or three extra students per class -- an addition made possible by a Georgia Department of Education class size waiver.

Over the past decade, Walker County will have lost a total of $41.7 million through austerity cuts. That figure -- which excludes other cuts such as lost equalization aid -- compares with next year's projected budget of $71.2 million down from this year's $73.9 million budget.

To cut about $1.5 million from its budget, Dade County Schools likely will close its alternative school and end its drivers education courses, officials said. The system will cut a combination of 15 teachers and paraprofessionals and decrease from a 180-day school calendar to 168 days, a move expected to save $1,800 per lost day.

"It's getting harder and harder," Superintendent Shawn Tobin said of continually cutting the schools budget. "We fear for the worst [with funding], and we usually get it."

Education cuts, now common across most states, are difficult enough. But Georgia educators say imposed spending increases just add to the problem.

Systems will have to pay an additional $150 in insurance each month for insured classified employees, which include bus drivers, cafeteria workers and paraprofessionals. That adds up to $1,800 per classified employee annually. School systems also are required to increase their contributions to Georgia's Teacher Retirement System -- Dade County will spend an extra $11,000 a month to fund the increase.

Catoosa County Schools will see an austerity reduction of about $8 million. The system doesn't plan for drastic cuts in the 2013 budget, but it will continue a five-day employee furlough program. In past years, the system has lost employees, increased class sizes, cut school budgets and reduced contributions to employee benefits.

Because of growing enrollment, Dalton City Schools actually will see an increase in funding next year. But the system still has had to eat its more than $5 million austerity cut. Teachers work and get paid for 10 fewer days, while students miss several school days. The system is down about 55 employees this year over 2009 levels, officials said.

"We implemented cuts earlier than some of our neighbors," said Theresa Perry, the district's chief financial officer.

Since 2008, Whitfield County Schools has cut 150 jobs and enacted 10 furlough days. But even that's not enough as the county grapples with next year's budget, which, because of cuts and increased costs, is $28 million short.

Whitfield schools officials don't have plans to reduce the work force any further. But at a recent meeting school board Chairman Louis Fordham said the board is considering a property tax hike.

FUNDING SHIFT

As the state reduces education funding, that burden more and more falls on the back of local property taxpayers. Before austerity cuts, Garrett said, the split between state and local streams of education funding was about 60-40. Now local and state funding are about an equal split in a system's budget, he said.

So far the cuts haven't shown any evidence of affecting student achievement. But as class sizes get larger and larger, Garrett wonders how long teachers will stay in the business and what long-term effects await.

"My belief is that we pay the price for that down the road," he said.

Staff writer Joy Lukachick contributed to this story.