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.
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.