Schools want cash, flexibility

Likely facing more state funding cuts next year, Richmond County school officials want greater control of the money they do receive.

This week, the school board adopted its 2010 legislative priorities that it will present to local delegation members. At the top of the list is both a call for the state to allow more spending flexibility, as well as opposition to any legislative efforts that might limit local school board authority.

The school board is now restricted from using sales tax collections for general operation costs. Such funds must go to capital improvements. Flexibility in spending any future sales tax proposals for operational costs would help offset some budget cuts, school officials said.

"RCSS supports flexibility in spending so the local boards and superintendents can target expenditures effectively and efficiently based on their community's needs rather than according to state rules and expenditure controls," the board's priority list states.

The list also notes previous attempts to mandate a school starting date, as well as "patch work" laws on discipline.

The board also is supportive of efforts by the Georgia School Boards Association to address what it states is the need for "fair" education funding from the state for the upcoming 2010 legislative session, set to start in January.

The Richmond County school system has faced $70 million in cuts over the past three years.

According to the school system, the state funds only about 15 percent of the total cost of sick leave for all employees. The state also funds less than a third of textbook costs.

The GSBA plans to push for greater state funding in the 2010 legislative session, noting that the share of education funding by the state versus local has shifted since the Quality Basic Education Act was adopted in 1985. When the QBE Act was passed, Don Rooks, the director of legislative services for the GSBA, said there was an understanding that 80 percent of education funding would come from the state and 20 percent would be local. After many years of state funds not being adjusted to meet inflation and the past several years of budget cuts, Mr. Rooks said statewide education funding now averages 60 percent state and 40 percent local. In some cases, the share has even tipped to 60 percent local and 40 percent state.

"Across the state, the message has been to increase millage or lay off people or use reserves, and in many, many, many cases, it's been all three," he said.

Mr. Rooks said the GSBA has been asking local school boards to ask their area legislators to push for greater education funding in the coming session.

"What we're saying is let's move upward from where we are now so that so much of the burden doesn't fall back to, in your case, Richmond County," he said.

The GSBA plans to present its own list of legislative priorities, including a call for more education funding, to all legislators at the start of the January session. The association also will urge that all bills include a fiscal note stating what budgetary impact a bill might have on local schools.

At a recent school board retreat meeting, Richmond County schools Superintendent Dana Bedden said three candidates for governor had already visited him, and "everybody is making education a hot platform."

Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 828-3851 or preston.sparks@augustachronicle.com.