Georgia's Capitol in Atlanta

Georgia’s Capitol in Atlanta

ATLANTA — Gov. Brian Kemp Thursday called for increasing funds to Georgia public schools by more than $1.2 billion to help offset cuts to education the General Assembly imposed last year.

The governor’s $26.3 billion mid-year budget – up from the $25.9 billion fiscal 2021 budget lawmakers adopted last June – would restore more than $647 million in “austerity” cuts to Georgia schools. Kemp’s $27.2 billion fiscal 2022 budget plan covering state spending starting July 1 would restore another $573 million.

Kemp’s budget recommendations would mean less heavy lifting for the legislature, which was forced to cut spending last year by $2.2 billion to offset several months of plunging state revenues brought on by the coronavirus pandemic’s toll on the economy.

Nearly $1 billion of those reductions were to Georgia schools, even as teachers and administrators struggled to cope with the impacts of COVID-19.

“The additional burdens of remote learning, social distancing, wearing a mask, adapting to the new normal honestly made education overwhelming,” Kemp said Thursday during his annual State of the State address to a joint session of the state House and Senate. “With those funds, schools will be able to prioritize our students’ safety (and) ensure quality education continues.”

Besides restoring the cuts to K-12 education, the two budgets would put back spending reductions to public colleges and universities as well as the state’s technical colleges. The governor also is proposing to fully fund enrollment growth at both public schools and on University System of Georgia campuses.

New spending initiatives include $30 million to establish a rural broadband infrastructure grant program, $20 million in seed money in the mid-year budget and $10 million in fiscal 2022 to match federal funds and private money to build broadband projects.

Kemp also is recommending $40 million in the fiscal 2022 budget to launch the Rural Innovation Fund, a pool of money to help finance innovative projects targeted to specific needs in specific parts of rural Georgia.

The annual bond package for building projects is highlighted by $90 million that would go toward the $210 million expansion of the Savannah Convention Center. The General Assembly put up $70 million in bond funding for the first phase of the project last year.

Another $6 million in bond financing would go toward expanding the Lake Lanier Conference Center in Hall County.

Transportation-related bonds include $100 million in what has become an annual allocation for new bridges across Georgia and $10 million for improvements to the state’s network of short-line railroads.

On the mental health front, the fiscal 2022 budget includes nearly $2 million to expand services to Georgians with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

And, in a sign of the times, $5 million would go toward building an 8-foot fence around the state Capitol in downtown Atlanta. The Capitol grounds have seen a stronger-than-usual police presence since last week’s riot in and around the U.S. Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump.

K-12 set for $1.7 billion in new COVID-19 aid

Georgia public schools are set to receive about $1.7 billion in federal COVID-19 aid as part of a second round of relief spending Congress passed last month.

The new funding follows about $457 million that Georgia K-12 schools were allocated last year in the initial wave of COVID-19 federal relief through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

Local districts will receive relief funding based on what proportion of low-income students attend their schools, ranging from more than $139 million for DeKalb County schools to nearly $367,000 for Glascock County schools.

The state Board of Education approved distributing the COVID-19 aid at a meeting Thursday morning, shortly before Kemp outlined his latest budget priorities for the General Assembly in the 2021 legislative session.

In his annual “State of the State” speech on Thursday, Kemp also announced the state would give teachers and other school employees a one-time $1,000 pay supplement as they continue struggling with impacts from the virus.

Public schools in Georgia will not be required to share federal funds with private schools in the new relief package, like they did in the initial CARES aid, after a federal judge halted that distribution plan over the summer.

State School Superintendent Richard Woods said his office will look at whether those funding allocations could be changed to reflect school population sizes instead of just low-income student percentages after some board members voiced concerns about fair distribution.

Woods added that “a good portion” of the new COVID-19 funding would go toward helping restore budget cuts made last year.

Many local schools are still grappling with how to hold classes amid the pandemic. Several districts are remaining online-only for students, including the large DeKalb County School District. Other districts have instituted limits on classes sizes or allowed students to opt in for in-person classes.

The state received more than $80 million in federal aid last summer to bolster internet connections for virtual learning, mental health services, support for independent colleges, online classes for technical colleges, a construction-training program and funds for early child-care assistance.