Friday’s direction from state officials that Georgia’s public school systems should prepare for a 14% funding cut sounds like bad news for many. But for Bulloch County Schools employees, it eliminates pay cuts in the form of furlough days from consideration, Superintendent Charles Wilson said Monday.
Wilson had projected a possible reduction in state funding in the 15-30% range and started warning employees of potentially more drastic pay cuts April 16 when he presented a worst-case scenario to the Board of Education. This worst-case plan included the possibility of 20 furlough days, which would have been a 10.5% pay reduction for 190-day contract employees such as teachers. When the board met again in a work session Thursday evening, he added a “hopeful case scenario” that included just five furlough days.
But Wilson also left the “worst case” in play as a possibility. This, plus a chart he presented and comments he made suggesting that employees’ federal stimulus checks could offset their personal losses to furlough days, led to criticism from some board members.
Then, on Friday, the state lawmakers who chair the Georgia House and Senate appropriations committees and the director of the state Office of Planning and Budget sent a memo to school superintendents statewide, as well as chiefs of state agencies, to expect a 14% reduction. Also Friday, Wilson received information that the consumer spending plunge caused by the COVID-19 pandemic may not be as dire as he first projected.
“We’re looking at Local Option Sales Tax collections too and how that impacts our general fund budget, and so when we were able to get that number, it gave us the opportunity to adjust our revenue projections here locally as well, so those two things combined, all of that news that we got from the state on Friday, really was like a double-whammy of good news,” Wilson said Monday.
Like many Georgia counties, Bulloch County has an Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or E-SPLOST, limited to capital spending such as school construction and purchases of buses, technology, classroom equipment and books. But Bulloch is also one of fewer than 10 counties where the original Local Option Sales Tax, or LOST, is dedicated to funding school operations.
So, to the extent that the pandemic-related shutdown reduces retail sales, the school system will see a negative double-whammy in its local funding. But with the latest Georgia retail sales projections, Wilson and his staff are upgrading their projection to a 25% reduction in LOST revenue. That still-dramatic drop would at least be better than the 40% sales tax decline he originally suggested.
Meanwhile, he and his staff had taken what he called in an email “very proactive measures within the district over the past month to reduce expenditures, in areas other than loss of jobs or pay for full-time employees.” These measures include cutting $2.5 million in personnel costs and another $2.5 million in non-personnel spending and applying for a little over $2.5 million in federal emergency funding directed to schools under the CARES Act.
Personnel actions already ordered include a freeze on rehiring for 44 vacant teaching jobs and five administrator positions and the layoff for more than a dozen previously retired educators serving in part-time roles.
This mitigation plan adds up to a little more than $7.5 million in savings and emergency funding.
The full 20 furlough days Wilson suggested under the worst-case plan were expected to save $6.7 million more. If that worst case came true, the system would still have spent $10.8 million more than it took in during the 2021 fiscal year, which starts July 1, and would have reduced its $20 million general fund balance by more than half in a single year.
His “hopeful case” plan was based on a projected state revenue reduction of 15%, at the low end of the range he first predicted. Then, only $5.75 million in deficit spending from the fund balance would have been needed, in addition to five furlough days, he suggested Thursday night.
Now, no furloughs
But after the “double whammy” of relatively positive news Friday, including the 14% state funding cut, Wilson says the Bulloch County Schools can weather the storm without furlough days.
“When you look at the impact on our fund balance, it’s the same now, so all of that good news being factored in, I believe we can just eliminate furlough days, and that’s going to be my recommendation to the board in the budget situation we’ve developed,” he said in Monday’s phone interview. “So, good news, as far as I’m concerned.”
Based on the new information, Bulloch County’s school system will still see about a $12.5 million combined loss in state and local revenue for the next year, Wilson said. With the $5 million in local spending cuts and the expected $2,577,086 in federal CARES Act funds, the school system would still spend almost $5.5 million more than it takes in.
He came to Thursday night’s work session without the next day’s relatively good news from the state and was still suggesting furlough days then.
Wilson’s slides included a chart suggesting how the $1,200 that most American adults are receiving in federal stimulus funding could help offset furlough days. The chart showed the $1,200 roughly equaling 20 days net pay for an employee with a gross annual salary of just $15,000 and diminishing numbers of furlough days for higher pay, including just four days net pay for an employee with a gross salary of $75,000.
“A worker that doesn’t make that pay range, and … a single parent that already has bills stacked, it’s kind of hard to say, save your stimulus money,” said District 8 board member Maurice Hill. “I’m just trying to see how that affects working-class people.”
A little later Hill added that, since the school system has accumulated a large fund balance, he was asking that furlough days be eliminated or limited to five days at most.
“I can say that, as the superintendent, I am committed to minimizing them down to zero,” Wilson said then.
The chart, plus a comment from Wilson that he hoped most people would save the money from their stimulus checks and not spend it on something like a new TV, prompted criticism from District 4 board member April Newkirk.
“This chart definitely takes an upper-class mindset,” she said. “It makes … the assumption that people are able to make choices about how they’re spending their stimulus check.”
“Who else is still scheduled to get a raise based on their contract this year?” Newkirk had asked first. “That would be me, based on my contract,” Wilson answered. “Will you still be getting a raise?” she asked. “That is a good question,” he said.
Wilson’s three-year contract, approved by the board in 2018 but effective from July 31, 2019, provides for 2% raises in the second and third years, from a first-year salary of $176,820.
Speaking to the board, he noted that, also under his contract, he does not receive raises the state provides for teachers.
But the proposal for furloughs would always have reduced the pay of all employees, including Wilson and other administrators, by an equal number of contract days, he told the Statesboro Herald. Previous furlough days following the 2008 recession also worked that way.
District 1 member Cheri Wagner, District 3 member Stuart Tedders and Chairman Mike Sparks spoke saying they appreciated Wilson’s proactive sharing of information.
“What we’ve talked about here tonight Superintendent Wilson and I have talked about at length, and I think he’s doing the right thing by presenting this so people will be aware, in case, and as he said, I hope we don’t have to have an in-case, but I would rather be prepared and be proactive,” Sparks said.