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Bulloch Schools to park added state funding
BOE in deficit mode after locally funded raises last year
W Charles Wilson
Bulloch County Schools Superintendent Charles Wilson

The Bulloch County Schools should receive an almost $1.7 million increase in state funding this year, Chief Financial Officer Troy Brown told the Board of Education last week.

Whether the money will be used for new raises for teachers and other employees, or to help offset the continuing cost of raises and other locally funded spending increases begun last year, remains to be seen.

“What the superintendent has instructed me to do at this point is to park those funds … so that it can be decided at a later date how the board and the superintendent would like to act upon that $1.7 million,” Brown said Thursday during the board meeting at Portal Middle High School.

In January, when Gov. Nathan Deal proposed a $300 million increase in Georgia’s funding to elementary, middle and high schools, he said this was more than would be required for a 3 percent raise for teachers.

However, Deal and the General Assembly did not change the state teacher salary schedule, Brown noted. Instead, the line item in the fiscal year 2016-17 appropriations bill states that the $300 million will offset previous austerity reductions in per-student funding and “provide local education authorities the flexibility to eliminate teacher furlough days, increase instructional days, and increase teacher salaries.”

 

Already did that

But the Bulloch County Board of Education eliminated unpaid furlough days two years ago. As of this school year, the school system returned to the full 180 days of classes that state law prescribes.

With the current year’s budget, the board also refreshed a long-frozen local supplement to certified educators’ salaries. This amounted to a 1.6 percent net raise for teachers and most administrators. The board also provided a 5 percent raise in the base pay of other employees, such as paraprofessionals and custodians.

Speaking at the board meeting, Superintendent Charles Wilson said that although he appreciates that there are “so many well intended efforts being made at the state level,” these have sent mixed messages.

“Well, we’re already there and  we’re doing things, so … even now if we were talking about taking that money and continuing to put it toward the schools, it puts us in a little bit of a dilemma,” Wilson said.

Board member Steve Hein said he understood Brown and Wilson to mean the school system could “park” the money because it had already done the things called for in the state appropriations bill.

“I’m OK with that, but how does that align with the governor’s purpose and intent for that money?” Hein asked.

Wilson said he had emailed several state agencies to ask if the language in the bill amounts to a mandate, and had been told it is more a moral and ethical consideration.

“If you go through it morally and ethically, we’ve already met these things… beyond that, I think it’s in our discretion,” Wilson said.

 

Spending the reserve

The fact that the raises and other new spending the board approved last summer put the Bulloch County Schools in an annual deficit situation wasn’t mentioned during last week’s discussion. Although the school system still has a reserve of cash accumulated in past years, its fiscal year 2016 spending was projected to exceed the year’s revenue by $5.7 million.

The board declined suggestions from Brown and Wilson for a local property tax increase last year and instead drew from the reserve, which totaled about $19 million at the beginning of the school year. Besides the raises, the board in summer 2015 approved a $2.2 million infusion of local cash to the schools to offset continuing “austerity reductions” in state funding.

Principals, with input from their leadership teams, were allowed to spend this money as they saw fit on school operations. Most of the schools hired additional teachers, paraprofessionals or other faculty.

Meanwhile, with the economy improving, Deal and the Legislature have taken steps the past two years to restore state funding nearer to the levels called for under the Quality Basic Education, or QBE, formula.

The $1.7 million state funding increase to the Bulloch County Schools for fiscal 2017 is technically a reduction of the remaining austerity cut to $1 million for the year, Brown explained. For the current school year, fiscal 2016, the school system received more than the previous year, but still about $2.6 million less than it would have gotten if the QBE formula had been fully funded.

 

No ‘local values’ yet

During last year’s lengthy budgeting process, Wilson and board members also talked about assigning “local values” funding for hiring more counselors and specialty teachers.

At that time, Brown and Wilson had suggested partially equalizing funding among the 15 schools by giving more money to those campuses that received less per student than indicated by the state funding formula plus the “local values.” But the final budget option the board chose did not do this, Wilson noted Thursday.

Instead, the current budget increased local funding to all the schools equally, on a per-student basis.

“In essence, what we’ve done is perpetuate the existing issue, in a better way,” Wilson said. “I mean, we gave everybody more money, but we perpetuated the same model.”

He urged the board to continue work toward a local values funding approach based on the school system’s strategic plan.

A local budget committee will be formed this summer to consider how to mesh this approach with major changes in state funding expected to take effect with fiscal year 2018, Brown said.

A statewide commission that Deal created delivered a plan in December to replace the QBE formula, which has guided Georgia’s school funding for 30 years, with a “student-based budgeting” approach.

But for now, Bulloch County’s school board must adopt a 2016-17 budget with the QBE formula still in place. Budget presentations are scheduled for the board’s April 14, April 28, May 12 and May 26 meetings, with tentative budget approval slated for June 9.

A state law awaiting Deal’s signature will require two public hearings before final approval, Brown said. Previously, hearings were required only for a tax increase.

Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.

 

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