Gov. Nathan Deal signs the Appropriations Bill into law for the budget for fiscal year 2015 at a ceremony on Monday morning at the district office of Gwinnett County Public Schools. Deal is surrounded by local elected officials and GCPS CEO/Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks. (Staff Photo: Keith Farner)
SUWANEE — Calling it a momentous occasion for the district, J. Alvin Wilbanks welcomed Gov. Nathan Deal to Gwinnett on Monday to make official what many teachers have wanted for several years.
Wilbanks, the CEO/Superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools, hosted Deal in what was the first time a Georgia governor chose a public school location to sign the Appropriations Bill. Deal also signed legislation to abolish the estate tax before a board room full of local, county and state elected officials, senior district staff, school administrators and education leaders at the district office.
“I think all of us know we’ve had some tough times the past several years,” Wilbanks said. “Things are looking better, I wouldn’t say anybody’s said we’re out of the woods, but this is certainly the best budget we’ve seen in a number of years.”
The ceremony began a statewide tour on Monday for Deal to sign other legislation in Jekyll Island, Pooler, Tybee Island and Statesboro.
The bill Deal signed included the largest single increase of kindergarten through high school funding in seven years. The formula that determines that, called the Quality Basic Education formula, will be funded at $514.3 million in fiscal year 2015.
The school district will receive $30.2 million in additional state money, which comes from the reduced austerity cuts that will be $76.8 million, down from $107 million last year. Those cuts have totaled more than $815 million since 2003.
Deal chose Gwinnett to sign the legislation in part because GCPS is the largest school system in the state, and one in 10 K-12 students in the state attend GCPS schools.
“We decided that this would be a very appropriate setting to sign the fiscal year 2015 state budget,” Deal said. “Since so much of the money appropriated in this legislation is going to education, this is a very appropriate place.”
For the first time since the 2008-09 school year, GCPS employees will receive a cost-of-living raise of two percent, and teachers will receive the first step increase, a calculation based on experience, since 2009-10. Ninety eight percent of teachers will receive a step increase and a cost-of-living raise, and the average salary increase will be 3.8 percent.
“We were not certain what the effect of this appropriation was going to be on education across our state,” Deal said. “But your example is being repeated in almost every school system from which I have heard from, and I have visited.”
Being an election year, Deal said he was urged to put money specifically toward teacher raises because that would offer the biggest political bang for the buck.
“Well, that was not the right thing to do,” Deal said. “If we really entrusted education to the local board of education, and the local school superintendent, we should let them make the decision about where the money should be spent.”
The signed legislation also includes $16.5 million in bonds to expand PeachNet and other technology infrastructure upgrades and expansions. That allows the state to execute what Deal called the “eminent teacher program,” which is designed through a partnership with Georgia Public Broadcasting. GPB would make the lessons and presentations by the state’s best teachers available to share around the state. The program started slow because some school systems didn’t have the technological capacities to use the presentations.
Deal said the parts of the budget that would effect Gwinnett are $10.3 million in bonds for renovations and constructions of new K-12 schools, $2.1 million in bonds to build a human services building in the county, and $3.8 million in bonds to complete the new North Fulton campus of Gwinnett Technical College.
The budget also includes $105,000 for five new family residence slots at Gwinnett Medical Center.