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Local districts bear school costs
By Jeannie M. “Sis” Henry and James Pope
With the political season upon us, it’s easy to get lost in political rhetoric about funding public schools. The reality is that local boards don’t have the funds to maintain the current level of services being provided and are laying off teachers and other employees, and cutting programs like music, art, foreign language and extracurricular activities. They are cutting into bone ... forget about fat.
Local school boards are sensitive to the needs of students, teachers, support staff and their local economy; they are suffering over these decisions. Boards have no choice, however, because of years of underfunding of public education in Georgia and an economic recession that has depleted state and local revenue.
Consider these facts about funding in Georgia when you hear suggestions about how to “fix public education”:
* More than 90 percent of Georgia’s children attend public schools. Enrollment in the state’s public schools has grown by 214,685 students since 2002. Funding has not kept pace with growth.
* The state has cut education funding by $4.5 billion since 2002. These cuts were called “austerity reductions.”
n Ninety-two percent of state funds sent to local school districts are used to pay salaries. The remaining 8 percent must pay for everything else that is required by law to teach students and operate a school district, often the largest employer in a county. If state or federal funds are lacking, then local funds make up the difference.
* The true cost of operating schools is much greater than what the state funds. For example, in the latest available figures, for 2006 alone the true cost of mandated sick leave for teachers and other 10-month employees, textbooks, maintenance and operation of school buildings, and transportation was about $1.79 billion. The state funded only $589.4 million. Local school districts had to pay — from local money — an additional $1.197 billion! That’s more than a billion dollars in just four areas of operations — again — that had to be paid with local taxes.
These are a few of many examples of the underfunding of public education. Since 2009, Georgia has received almost $900 million in stimulus money from the federal government. This has helped to offset the $4.5 billion in austerity reductions, but there are no stimulus funds for next year.
If the economy does not improve or if no additional revenue is found for our schools, what we are experiencing now will be a dress rehearsal for things to come. Don’t be swayed by rhetoric. Please make it your responsibility to know the truth concerning the school funding crisis. Go to local board meetings and budget meetings. Be an informed voter and community member.
Jeannie M. “Sis” Henry is executive director of the Georgia School Boards Association.
James Pope is GSBA president and president of the Carrollton school board.
This column was originally published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.