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State budget expected to include more money for K-12 education

For a decade, budget austerity cuts have caused Georgia’s school districts to be malnourished financially, and if that drop in funding continues, one legislative chairman said the districts could “starve to death.”

Those were the words of Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, chair of the state senate’s Education and Youth committee, speaking to reporters last week at an education media symposium at Georgia Public Broadcasting headquarters in Atlanta.

“The bottom line is, if we get used to (cuts), the schools are going to starve to death,” Tippins said.

Fortunately, Gov. Nathan Deal is expected to boost K-12 education funding when he unveils his budget on Wednesday.

“There will be a significant increase in K-12 funding,” Deal said in a weekend interview on WSB Radio. “It will be done in such a way that it will relieve much of the pressure that local school districts have been under.”

Historically, the state budget includes 51 percent allocated toward education, including about 39 percent on K-12 education.

If funding isn’t restored, districts have requested more funding flexibility to raise taxes themselves for daily operations. School districts are restricted to using local education sales taxes for construction or equipment purposes.

That flexibility helps school districts where a sales tax wouldn’t if, for example, there isn’t a Walmart in the county.

Raising taxes statewide is not likely, said Rep. Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, chairman of the House Education Committee, referring to the failed transportation sales tax around most regions in the state.

“The appetite is just not there,” Coleman said.

During a listening tour of the state last fall, Coleman said members of the House and Senate were surprised to learn of the dire financial circumstances of some districts across the state. Coleman said 19 of the 180 districts are on the verge of bankruptcy, while several were open less than 180 days.

Coleman also said that education leaders told the legislators during the tour to rewrite the Quality Basic Education formula, which is about 30 years old, and has few references for technology.

Last year, the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute said the cumulative deficit on Gwinnett County Public Schools since 2003 was $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 QBE formula, which is based on student enrollment.

In Gwinnett, CEO/Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks has said his district has delayed carpet replacements, HVAC replacements, roof replacements and painting because of budget cuts.

While school districts have absorbed those cuts, they’ve also recorded a 15 percent spike in poverty in the last decade.

Dana Rickman, policy and research director with the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, said 60 percent of the state’s K-12 enrolled population receives free or reduced lunch.

John Barge, the State School Superintendent and a candidate for governor, said he has not talked with Deal about the budget.

“I’ve not had any direct conversations with the governor’s office about funding. I have no idea what it is,” the superintendent said. “I have to read it in the newspaper. That’s where my information comes from.”

While GCPS ended teacher furloughs this school year, many districts still have them in place.

“In 2012, there was a promise made to end teacher furloughs,” Barge said. “That hasn’t happened.”