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Austerity cuts hit school system budgets hard

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Growth brings challenges

Members of the boards of education for the Rome and Floyd County school systems meet with state Rep. Eddie Lumsden, Rep. Katie Dempsey, and Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, who are members of the local legislative delegation, Thursday morning, Dec. 7, 2017. (Spencer Lahr / RN-T.com)

Removing austerity cuts to the state’s formula in providing funding to public schools was one of a number of issues brought before Floyd County legislators during a joint meeting with local school boards Thursday.

Members of the boards of education for the Rome and Floyd County school systems, along with their superintendents, had a chance to question the local legislative delegation: Rep. Eddie Lumsden, R-Armuchee, Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, and Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome.

The austerity cuts have been in place since 2003. As of the passage of the 2018 budget, the state’s public schools have had funding cut by $9.2 billion, according to the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute.

Locally, Floyd County Schools has had over $60 million in cuts over this time, while Rome City Schools has had over $30 million. Just for the 2018 fiscal year, the school systems have been shorted $1.73 million combined based on what the state’s formula — which was established under the 1985 Quality Basic Education Act — calls for in funding.

This year’s cuts — about $167 million statewide — are steeply less than those of previous years, namely between 2010 and 2014, which saw $1 billion in cuts statewide each year, the GBPI reports. The state is spending roughly $12.3 billion on education in the 2018 fiscal year, an increase of $515 million from the 2017 fiscal year, according to the GBPI.

However, the GBPI warns underfunding continues to have a negative impact on schools and what they are able to fund, such as bringing in more teachers or academic coaches.

Lou Byars, superintendent for Rome City Schools, told legislators that the need for funding in schools is greater than what the formula reflects.

A GBPI report echoed this point: “Designed 32 years ago, it does not align with the much higher student academic goals now in place, nor does it reflect students’ growing needs.

“Georgia ranks 38th in spending per student and invests $1,965 less per student than the national average.”

Hufstetler said the legislature certainly hasn’t reached fully funding schools, but he would like to see austerity done away with.

Rome board member Cheryl Huffman said study committees continue to point to the need for fully funding what the formula accounts for, and, if done, the system can further develop the education it offers its students.

Following a question from Rome board member Elaina Beeman, pertaining to the expansion of early learning centers and the fiscal challenges of it, Byars said more funding would help establish and sustain a second center for the system. Even sustaining the South Rome Early Learning Center at Anna K. Davie Elementary is difficult, Byars said, as there just isn’t enough money in the budget for it.

There is space for more centers, Byars added, but no other funding source to support them, considering the system would like to provide them at no cost to parents. Currently parents with 3 year olds at the SRELC are charged, with prices based on their income.

It’s an issue Dempsey would like the community to rally around through a fundraiser, something Romans do well, she said. She called on Rome City officials to tell the story of what these early education programs can do for children, especially those from low-income families. More state funding, she said, comes with strings attached.

Byars, along with John Jackson, superintendent of Floyd County Schools, said the Teacher Retirement System is a major recruitment tool.

“It’s a huge incentive,” Jackson said.

“TRS is one of those things that keeps us here,” Byars said.

If the TRS is scrapped for a 401K model, Byars said his system will lose teachers.

“There is no incentive for them to stay,” if this happened, he continued. He hoped there wouldn’t be a “knee-jerk reaction” to concerns of an economic downturn that would result in this change.

“It’s not fun and it’s not cheap,” Hufstetler said.

Systems are faced in the 2018 fiscal year with their fifth increase — up to 16.81 percent from 14.27 percent — to employer contributions to TRS, according to the GBPI.

Floyd County board chairman Chip Hood had asked if systems can expect these rising costs to table off or go down. The delegation indicated more money will have to be put in over the coming years.