The Cherokee County school superintendent has been a vocal critic of the state government for its lack of school funding at recent board meetings, and a report released this week confirms the local district’s state funding woes.
Cherokee County ranked No. 8 out of the 20 school districts with the largest cumulative Quality Basic Education state funding cuts since 2003, also referred to as “Austerity Budget Reductions,” totaling more than $172 million, based on a September report by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a self-described independent nonprofit.
Cherokee Superintendent of Schools Dr. Frank Petruzielo said the report confirms what he and the school board have been saying for some time.
“This report bolsters the concerns and pleas the school board and I have made every year to the Cherokee County legislative delegation: State ‘austerity budget cuts’ are causing serious damage to public education,” Petruzielo said Thursday. “Fewer school days, increased class size, employee pay cuts, higher taxes and depleted reserves.”
According to the report’s figures, Cherokee has seen $172,784,196 million in cumulative cuts to Quality Basic Education state funding since 2003.
Last school year, the local district canceled five instructional days because of the state cuts, but was able to restore students to a full 180-day calendar this year. Teachers also experienced an eight-day pay cut last school year, and although the number has improved, school faculty and staff will still have three furlough days this school year.
In addition, Cherokee public school class sizes continue to rise, along with the maximum number of students allowed in each classroom.
The average kindergarten class size in Cherokee has risen to 25 students compared to 16 in 2009, according to the district, and kindergarten classes are maxed at 26 students, up from 22 five years ago.
For fiscal 2013-14, the local district saw a $24,846,679 cut from what the QBE called for based on the formula created by legislators, the school board’s executive budget summary and the recent report showed.
Claire Suggs is the analyst and author of the report, released by the reportedly left-leaning, but self-identified independent Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.
“Cherokee County would have received $633 more per student, had the QBE been fully funded this (school) year,” Suggs said.
“The QBE is the single largest stream of state funding. The vast majority of state funding is QBE funds … when you’re cutting that, you’re cutting your biggest funding program.”
Petruzielo said these cuts are negatively affecting the quality of education for the community’s children.
“If the state of Georgia cares about the future of its children, our governor and state legislators need to restore critically needed funding for traditional public schools,” Petruzielo said.
“We know that the billions of dollars in education funding cut statewide by the Legislature cannot likely be fully restored in one year; but, as revenues continue to increase, the state’s top priority needs to be that restoration.”
In the 2013-14 school year budget approved by the board in July, state revenue made up 45 percent of the total revenue, federal made up 2 percent, and local and other made up 53 percent of revenue.
“Local districts are bearing more of the cost of financing public schools than they did previously,” Sugg said. “In 2002 the state covered about 56 percent of the total cost of public education, while local districts covered about 38 percent and federal dollars covered about 6 percent. You go to 2012 and that’s changed. There’s greater reliance on local funding and there’s greater reliance on federal funding.”
Suggs said that since 2003, the Legislature has provided less than the amount owed to local districts based on the state’s Quality Basic Education formula.
“It’s a formula that the Legislature approved in 1985, and it’s very complex. But basically, it looks at student enrollment and their specific needs. So it would take into account grade levels, it would take into account whether students have special needs, and it uses that information to calculate how much each district needs to educate its particular students,” Suggs said.
“A sixth-grader in a regular class in Cherokee County, (the state uses) the term ‘earn,’ would earn the same amount as a sixth-grader in a regular class in every other county in the state.”
Cumulatively, the report states that in Georgia, school districts have faced a shortfall of at about $7.6 billion over the past decade.
“The current school year is the fifth year now, where the Legislature has provided a billion dollars less than what the QBE calculates is needed to provide a quality education. That’s why it’s called a ‘quality basic education,’” Suggs said. “This is the formula the Legislature approved.”
According to Petruzielo’s summary of revenue, presented to the school board in June prior to the 2013-14 budget approval, QBE cuts aren’t the only challenging funding drop for the district.
“The school district has lost over $31 million in local property tax revenue over the past four years due to a 25.1 percent decline in overall property values,” Petruzielo wrote in the summary.
The Cherokee County school district has operated with a millage rate of 19.85 mills for the past four years, and Suggs said little can be done to raise local funds.
“Cherokee County really can’t do much to generate any additional local funds to try to fill the gap left by the decline in state funds,” Suggs said.
“The cap is 20 mills, and (Cherokee) is almost there. Cherokee is one of 63 districts that is at 17 mills or higher, and there’s not much these districts can do.”
Petruzielo said with additional policy changes mandated by the state, and the heavier burden on local residents, it is a serious local problem.
“The state of Georgia’s historical support of public education has eroded to the point where taxpayers are burdened with paying more than half of the costs for public education through local property taxes,” Petruzielo said.
“That shift of funding responsibility, along with continued extraordinary state unfunded mandates ranging from transportation to healthcare, is negatively affecting the quality of education our community’s children receive and their future opportunities.”
Suggs agreed, saying that new programs like the Georgia State Common Core Standards won’t be as effective without proper funding, adding that around a third of Cherokee County students are economically disadvantaged.
“We have students with greater educational needs coming into the classroom and we’re also pressing forward with some significant policy changes, and we need to make sure that all of those policy changes are adequately resourced if they’re going to have the impact on student achievement that we hope,” Suggs said.
Suggs said she thinks there may be misunderstanding among the legislators about school funding, and said in the short term a solution may be to discuss the school funding budget along-side the overall budget.
“There really isn’t a discussion in the Legislature exclusively about education funding, so a lot of times, I think legislatures may not fully understand what’s happening and I think it’d be useful if there was a separate budgeting process for the education budget, so it was very clear, so legislatures and the public could be part of the discussion about how we fund our schools,” Suggs said.
Long term, Suggs said that she thinks there needs to be “a frank discussion about revenue.”
“Between 2002 and 2012, and 2012 is the most up-to-date information that we have on millage rates, there were 138 districts that raised millage rates,” Suggs said.
“Just between the four years of 2008 and 2012, 121 districts raised their millage rate. So at the local level, local leaders are having that difficult conversation about revenues. They’re making those hard decisions about investing in public educations. Cherokee is one of the counties that’s been hit hardest by the decline in property values.”