School budgets looking up: Some concerns linger over ‘election year bump’
by Haisten Willis
May 04, 2014 04:00 AM | 5128 views | 3 3 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
'Candidly, I’d like to see what we can do to reduce class sizes even further. I think we can afford 400 (new teachers) easily.' ­— ­Scott Sweeney, Cobb School Board member
'Candidly, I’d like to see what we can do to reduce class sizes even further. I think we can afford 400 (new teachers) easily.' ­— ­Scott Sweeney, Cobb School Board member
MARIETTA — After years of recession-era budgets filled with furlough days, shortened school years, delayed raises and other tactics designed to fill funding gaps, Georgia schools are finally seeing relief.

At Marietta City Schools and the Cobb School District, extra money from the state and from higher property values mean the county will gain a significant number of new teachers next year.

Cobb has already passed a tentative $899 million budget for next year, a jump from the current year’s $856 million. The new budget includes a 180-day school year, no furlough days, 1 percent raises for all employees and 300 new teaching positions. School board member Scott Sweeney, in the middle of a tough re-election battle against Kevin Nicholas, has suggested it should be 400 new teachers.

“Candidly, I’d like to see what we can do to reduce class sizes even further,” Sweeney said during last month’s board meeting. “I think we can afford 400 easily.”

Marietta isn’t as far along in the process, but so far the budget looks favorable there as well. Initial numbers point to a drop in the millage rate from 18.682 mills to 17.97 mills, 14.5 new teachers and a 2 percent pay hike for all regular employees as part of a general fund that will be 4 percent larger, according to Erin Franklin, the system’s finance director.

Overall, plans call for a jump from 1,031 employees to 1,054 next year, though nothing has been finalized yet. Franklin updated the board on the budget during a Friday work session.

Quick turnaround

Cobb school leaders feared a $79 million deficit when they started looking at the budget last October.

In fact, Randy Scamihorn, then chairman of the Cobb school board, went so far as to announce at a public forum in December that, “The second largest school system in the state of Georgia is broke. That’s alarming.”

But those fears were wiped out as more concrete numbers came in. A $21 million jump in the county’s tax digest and a reduction in state austerity cuts of about $20 million helped turn around the district’s grave projections, said Chief Financial Officer Brad Johnson.

Cobb’s schools are funded mostly by local property taxes and Georgia’s school funding formula, called Quality Basic Education or QBE.

“Over the past six years, both of these sources have plummeted into what I would call a perfect storm,” Johnson said.

Last year, the local tax digest decreased by 2 percent, making this year’s 4.5 percent growth unexpected.

“This is just a dramatic turnaround from where we’ve been in the last few years,” Johnson said.

According to Johnson, 1,300 teacher positions were cut from the Cobb schools budget over the last five years. The addition of 300 new teachers next year adds some of those positions back. In total, the number of what the district calls local school positions will increase from 11,298 to 11,603.

Though maximum classroom sizes are set by the state, Cobb has received waivers in the past to put more students in classes than recommended. At first, Cobb put five extra students in classrooms, but last year, the district received permission to have eight additional students. Johnson said the 300 new teachers will reduce class sizes by an average of about one.

Johnson estimated moving from 300 to 400 new teachers next year would cost the district $7.5 million, which would be taken from reserve funds.

While Sweeney supports the idea, school board Scamihorn is more cautious.

“I’m sympathetic, but concerned about spending our money too quickly,” he said.

High school math, English, social studies, science and foreign language classes can have a maximum of 32 students per classroom, according to the state. In middle school, the maximum is 28 students. For grades four and five, it is also 28 students. Grades one through three are set at 21 students, and kindergarten is 18 students.

Some of the extra funds will wipe out previous cuts. For example, Johnson said the district implemented a 2 percent pay cut in 2010, and next year’s 1 percent raise will restore half of that.

There’s no reason not to expect the county’s tax digest to continue increasing, Johnson said, and the district should be able to sustain the new hires and return to a 180-day year with no furloughs.

“It would be crazy to do away with them and then next year bring them back,” Johnson said.

Portions of the extra money are what some are calling an “election year bump.”

Scamihorn and Sweeney’s opponent, Kevin Nicholas of east Cobb, have said up to $40 million the school system received from the state could be erased next year.

“What happens when it’s not an election year?” Nicholas said.

Gov. Nathan Deal and the entire state legislature are up for re-election this year.

Cobb schools received a $20 million austerity cut reduction, $3.5 million in Quality Basic Education formula funding, $38,305 for school nurses, a $5 million one-time reprieve in health insurance increases and $8.2 million in midterm student growth funding.

“We need to make sure we’re not putting ourselves in a position where we can’t afford the next year,” said Cobb School Board member Tim Stultz.

Some of those numbers could go down during the next budget cycle.

“The Cobb County School District is hopeful to receive additional QBE austerity reduction funding next year, as well as additional student growth funding from the State of Georgia,” Johnson said.

Final approval of the fiscal 2015 budget is scheduled for May 29.

The Marietta school board will tentatively adopt a budget May 20 and finalize the budget June 17.

Comments-icon Post a Comment
Tes Socra
May 05, 2014
A salary 1% give-back of the 2% take-away a couple years back is well earned by the teachers, but what happens next year when the "leadership" under the Gold Dome whacks your neighborhood schools budget again ? Irresponsible CCSC financial management - and to dipping into reserves again is election year pandering at it's worst !
Many concerns
May 04, 2014
As a teacher in CCSD, I am extremely concerned they are overspending now. We are thankful to not have any furlough days, because the children need to be in school 180 days. Lowering class sizes should be a priority too. We have a major issue with too many kids sitting in school 45 minutes past dismissal due to second loads. This should not be happening in our school district. We need more buses, so we don't have any second loads. Buses come from SPLOST funding, yet they did not build buses in and haven't done anything about it. I think we would actually prefer they pay more of our healthcare cost. The 1% restoration doesn't help when they backhand us with an increase in healthcare. My paycheck is less now than it was 5 years ago with step increases. Every year, they pass the increase onto us for health insurance.
@ Many Concerns
May 04, 2014
re: "Buses come from SPLOST funding" and "... they did not build buses in"

Homework assignment for the CCSD teacher - Lookk at the current SPLOST projects. There is a $29,000,000 line item in the current SPLOST for BUSES, Vehicles, and Equipment showing for;

"Growth and attrition will require funding for replacement and new BUSES/support (Maintenance,

Technology Services, Food Services, Warehouse, etc.) vehicles and supporting equipment for the five years."
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