But many school systems are at a breaking point, say a growing chorus of administrators and parents.
“We’re having to deficit finance over the last several years. It’s very concerning to us,” said Allen McCannon, superintendent of the Madison County School District.
Madison, Clarke and many other school systems have repeatedly dipped into reserves as the legislature slashed money for public schools.
School funding was cut by a cumulative total of some $7.6 billion since 2002; this year and for the past few years, by about $1 billion a year, according to Claire Suggs, an analyst with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.
In the same time period, the percent of public school students who are economically disadvantaged has grown from 45 percent to 60 percent, she said.
State money now covers about 49 percent of school costs, down from 56 percent in 2002, according to Suggs’ analysis.
The financial picture has brightened for some districts this year. A combination of cost-cutting measures, including eliminating more jobs, plus higher-than-expected revenues gives Athens’ Clarke County a slight budget surplus this year.
In past years, Clarke spent more than it collected, taking money out of reserves to make up the difference.
But the cuts left many school districts in a deeper financial hole than Clarke’s.
In Madison County, the cuts add up to about $5.7 million, a big chunk for a school system with an annual budget of around $40 million.
At the same time state leaders cut funding, the legislature shifted some expenses to local taxpayers, while inflation increased costs for everyone.
“We’ve had millions of dollars worth of reductions in the last five years, and at the same time, we’ve had almost $15 million added to the budget for retirement, health care and other costs, things we didn’t have control over. So just to keep the same services we had five years ago, it costs $15 million more,” said Clarke County School Superintendent Philip Lanoue.
Legislative budget cuts and rising costs aren’t the only things draining school resources. As the Great Recession of 2008 dragged on, the value of tax digests plummeted across the state, Suggs found when she surveyed state school districts. The tax digest is the value of a county’s taxable property, and as the tax digest declines, so does the amount of revenue a school system can raise with a mill of tax levy.
On top of the average 15.3 percent decline in state funding, 132 reported an average decline in their tax digests of 17.5 percent.
To make up the difference, school systems have increased class sizes, laid off teachers, and sent remaining teachers home several days each other on unpaid furlough days.
For example, suburban Atlanta’s Douglas County schools had 24,830 students and 1,936 teachers in 2009; today the county has 25,500 students and 1,718 teachers, said John Zauner, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association.
“That paints a pretty clear picture of what’s going on throughout the state,” Zauner said.
“The workloads have reached a tipping point,” one superintendent told Suggs when she surveyed the state’s 180 school districts (140 responded). “We are losing our finest educators.”
“We are going to hit the bottom in about two years,” another said.
Nearly all that responded, 95 percent, reported increased class sizes since 2009.
In addition, 42 percent reduced or eliminated art and music programs, 62 percent eliminated some elective courses, and 38 percent cut back on programs to pull up low-performing students, Suggs found.
Most, 71 percent, cut their school class days down from the standard 180 days.
“It is no longer normal in Georgia to go to school for a full 180 days,” Suggs said last week at an educational forum sponsored by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education.
And 80 percent of school districts required teachers to take unpaid furlough days this year.
K-12 education makes up about 39 percent of the state’s annual spending, Suggs said. Georgia ranks 36, or 15th from the bottom, in spending per student among U.S. states, she said.
In reality, Georgia has been underfunding its schools and passing costs down to local property taxpayers for longer than the last dozen years, according to State School Superintendent John Barge, who is running for governor this year.
In 1985, state government paid school systems $16 to $18 a day to help cover the costs of substitute teachers; today, the rate is the same, though the going rate for substitutes is about $65, he said.
“We’ve never adjusted this formula for inflation,” he said Friday in Atlanta.
The state’s contribution for buying textbooks is also the same as it was 30 years ago, Barge said.
“We have to make a decision about what is the most important thing for us to invest in,” he said..
Barge said the cuts reflect more than just reduced state tax revenues.
“I believe there are people who would like nothing better than to see the public school system fail,” Barge said.
Legislative leaders say the state’s elected leaders will restore some of the cuts this year — but not the full $1 billion-plus annual cut.
“The bottom line is, if we get used to this, the schools are going to starve to death,” said Sate Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta.
Education funding is the top issue in the legislature this year, he said.
Legislators are also talking about a pay raise for teachers, who’ve been without a raise for five years.
But some question whether that’s the best first step to take.
“We need to end teacher furlough days,” Barge said.
When legislators raise teacher pay, the state only bears part of the cost, and local systems must come up money to cover benefits, said McCannon.
McCannon also questions a legislative proposal to change state law to allow school systems to use money from a special 1 percent sales tax for operating costs. Under current state law, most school systems can only use that sales tax money for construction projects.