Gwinnett schools' $1.86B budget includes across-the-board raises

SUWANEE — Across-the-board raises are coming to Gwinnett County Public Schools employees, even though property tax and state revenue figures still haven’t recovered from the Great Recession.

For the first time since 2008, the recommended budget for the school district will see an increase in revenue, especially locally, where the property tax values are projected to grow for the first time in six years, an increase of five percent, or $20.6 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. That brings the cuts to more than $815 million since 2003.

The estimated millage rates are expected to remain the same as they were approved last year, at 21.85 mills.

The recommended $1.86 billion budget was first announced on Tuesday evening during an area board meeting at Grayson High School where CEO/Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks offered an overview. The budget is also available on the school district’s web site, www.gwinnett.k12.ga.us. That budget is to accommodate a projected 3,233 more students in the district next year, which gives it a projection of 172,383 total students for the 2014-15 school year.

“Just having enough revenue to continue what we’ve been doing in the past is a real blessing, which we’ve not had even that luxury until this current year,” Chief Financial Officer Rick Cost said Tuesday in an interview with the Daily Post. “We’ve been in reduction mode. It is a very nice change to actually have additional dollars, almost all of which we’ve put back toward employees’ and teachers’ salaries and benefits.”

The general fund of the budget has grown by $56.4 million, or 4.4 percent, since last year, while the average cost per student is up 2.4 percent or $7,804.

For the first time since the 2008-09 school year, 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, Cost said.

“Mr. Wilbanks and the Board had the foresight over the last five years to be conservative and accurate in the budgets that they approved, which really enabled us to, this year, have no furlough days, have 180 days for students, so we were able to use all of that additional state revenue to go directly back to increases for teacher salaries, instead of trying to get them back to their non-furlough days levels,” Cost said.

The beginning teacher salary will be $38,383, while the average GCPS teacher will have a master’s degree or higher, 15 years experience, and earn $56,911 annually, which is $79,602, including benefits.

Bus drivers will receive a $1.25 per hour increase, while school nutrition workers will receive a 51 cents per hour raise as the district aims to close the cap with other school districts around metro Atlanta. Those positions are typically among the most difficult to recruit and train employees, Cost said.

Out of nine metro Atlanta area districts, GCPS this school year ranks lowest in the hourly rate for bus drivers, at $12.64.

The district also plans to hire 15 new bus drivers as it will have 15 new routes to handle the 3,233 more students and new school. Of the projected 850 teachers the district plans to hire this year, 174 of those will be new.

New costs for the district, which total $3.7 million, include startup costs for the new Northbrook Middle School in Suwanee, scheduled to open in August. The district also plans to hire nine additional School Resource Officers, on top of the 18 it already has, so each high school and middle school is staffed. The district also plans to hire Reading Recovery teachers for 35 to 40 elementary schools who are not currently in the program.

Gwinnett County, though, continues to become poorer, as reflected in the district’s current ranking of 101st out of 180 state school districts of property wealth per student. Two years ago, the school district was ranked in the mid-to-high 80s.

By comparison, the value of a mill in property tax this year generates $24.2 million, while in 2008, when the tax digest was at its highest, a mill generated $31 million.