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Gwinnett endured $738M in school cuts since 2003

There have been delays in carpet replacements, HVAC replacements, roof replacements and painting.

Financial cuts in the last decade have put a squeeze on local school budgets, and this week, the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute put a number on the cumulative deficit: $738 million. That number put Gwinnett County at the top of the list of Georgia school districts who have absorbed the largest cumulative shortfall in state funding, according to the Quality Basic Education formula, which is based on student enrollment.

The delays in operation projects, or routine maintenance, aren’t the only places Gwinnett County Public Schools has trimmed its budget. Superintendent/CEO J. Alvin Wilbanks told the Daily Post this week that GCPS also delayed purchases of new textbooks, and increased class sizes.

Teachers have also experienced furlough days, but those ended this year for the first time since the 2010 Fiscal Year.

“You can do this for a few years,” Wilbanks said of the lists of project delays. “But it catches up with you.”

The Quality Basic Education program is the primary source of state money for public schools, the GBPI report said. Lawmakers are shortchanging school districts by $633 per student this school year by providing less funding than called for, wrote Claire Suggs, a senior education policy analyst in a policy report titled “The Schoolhouse Squeeze.”

“These forces combine to put tremendous strain on districts at a time when they are working to lift student achievement to higher levels than ever,” Suggs wrote.

While the GBPI report said 60 percent of Georgia students last school year qualified for free or reduced-price lunches, those figures are higher within GCPS, according to a report presented to the Gwinnett County School Board of Education on Thursday by Rick Cost, GCPS’ chief financial officer.

Among high school students, 61 percent qualify, among middle school students 74 percent qualify and among elementary school students 77 percent qualify. But all those figures are down at least 10 percent each from last year as the district implements a new federal meal plan program.

“I applaud the First Lady’s efforts to improve nutrition, but I’m more than a bit skeptical whether that can be dictated from the federal government,” BOE member Dr. Robert McClure said. “I would appreciate her insights into how we actually get them to eat.”

While the state funding has fallen off over the last decade, GCPS officials this summer voted to increased their other funding source for Fiscal Year 2014. In June, they adopted a 1.30 mills increase over the previous year, an increase of $76 over the previous year’s school property taxes for the owner of a $150,000 home in Gwinnett County.

BOE Chairwoman Carole Boyce said in June that increasing taxes is something the the Board has held off for quite some time.

The declining tax digest was cited by Wilbanks as one reason for the mills increase. The GBPI report listed Gwinnett County with a 23.5 percent drop in tax digest between 2008 and 2012. Per student, the dropoff for Gwinnett was 26.7 percent, while the statewide average was 16 percent.

The GBPI report said state lawmakers handed districts unfunded mandates and a “massive withdrawal of state financial support for public education in Georgia puts an enormous challenge to school districts and undermines efforts to raise student achievement.”

“State leaders have launched far-reaching initiatives with the potential to improve teaching and student achievement,” Suggs wrote, “but have not provided enough money to carry them out.”