Originally created 09/10/04

3 budget paths confront schools



ATLANTA - How much aid the state sends to local school systems in the next fiscal year might depend on which of three budget scenarios plays out in the coming months.

If Gov. Sonny Perdue's darkest prediction holds true, and the State Department of Education faces cuts of almost $200 million, much of the burden would fall on local school systems under budget recommendations approved Thursday by the department's board.

If the sunniest scenario plays out, the districts could benefit from millions of extra dollars, including almost $108 million to help undo recent deep cuts to the state's main formula for funding public education.

Although spending on education is always a hot political topic, this year's budget process plays out against a backdrop that includes a threatened lawsuit by more than four dozen school districts and a task force Mr. Perdue has convened to look at the 20-year-old Quality Basic Education formula.

The recommendations passed by the board follow Mr. Perdue's instructions to plan for three funding possibilities: a budget that mirrors the one for this fiscal year, which began July 1; a spending plan that includes a cut of 3 percent from this year; and a blueprint for what the agency would do if it received a 5 percent increase.

In all, a 3 percent cut would lead to $178 million being sliced from the department's budget, including about $150 million from the Quality Basic Education formula and $11 million in equalization grants meant to narrow the gap between rich and poor schools. But Superintendent Kathy Cox said she would oppose budget reductions that would trigger that move.

"I'll fight that tooth and nail," she said.

If the department were to get a 5 percent funding boost, school districts would receive millions of dollars in benefits, including a $107.9 million increase in Quality Basic Education funding. That would help districts make up for more than $300 million in recent "austerity reductions."

Under any scenario, the state also would remove $1 million from a program meant to help teachers gain prestigious national board certification.

If the change is approved, Ms. Cox said, the remaining money would be targeted to try to get more certified teachers in high-need districts.

"So if the state's going to pay for you to get into national board training, maybe it ought to pay for those who are highest priority," Ms. Cox said.

Joe Martin, the executive director of the Consortium for Adequate School Funding in Georgia, noted that Mr. Perdue restored some funding for equalization grants after complaints from the consortium, which plans to file a lawsuit against the state.

Reach Brandon Larrabee at (404) 681-1701 or brandon.larrabee@morris.com.