As Rome and Floyd County school systems question whether they’ll start back at the regular time next school year and to what extent their budgets will be cut — many unknowns are on the table.
State education officials got their first look Thursday at the budget cuts ahead for public schools and programs amid the coronavirus emergency. But they did not dive into specifics on whether staff furloughs or layoffs may be needed.
The Georgia Department of Education is facing across-the-board cuts of around $1.6 billion to all aspects of the agency, from state administrative offices in Atlanta to specialty programs like agricultural education to everyday basic classroom education.
Those cuts come as part of 14% spending reductions that all state agencies must propose to state lawmakers by May 20, as business closures and social distancing spurred by coronavirus look to put state revenues in a $3 billion to $4 billion hole.
The blow to some educational programs will be softened since the agency was already gearing up for the 6% budget reductions Gov. Brian Kemp ordered last summer for the fiscal 2021 budget, officials said Thursday at a State Board of Education meeting.
What those cuts mean, and how deep they will go, is up in the air. The final decision will be up to legislators once the governor issues revenue estimates. The legislature, which hasn’t been in session since early March, hasn’t passed a state budget and local school systems don’t know what their allocations will be.
Until a budget is passed and approved, both local school systems are operating under spending resolutions to essentially continue this past year’s budget.
The Rome school board approved its spending resolution Tuesday. It allows the expenditure of funds not to exceed a month’s worth of the current budget — approximately $5 million, Superintendent Lou Byars said.
They’re hoping to be able to get firm numbers from the state once the legislature passes Georgia’s budget and then they can plan for what is to come.
During the board’s caucus, Byars didn’t want to rule out any options, but he said the school system is in good shape financially.
School board members, however, still talked about measures such as staff furloughs, which are a possibility in the next school year. Byars told the board that, if they do take furloughs, he would like to limit the amount of student instruction time affected by the days off. He suggested they use most of those furloughs during pre- and post-year planning days.
The superintendent of the Floyd County school system, Jeff Wilson, told his board last week they were expecting the cuts and projected they’d lose approximately $10.5 million from their budget.
Some of the cuts will be defrayed by a federal funding allocation under the CARES — Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security — Act. Last week, Georgia school officials agreed to distribute around $411 million in federal funding to help local school districts.
Rome City Schools’ share will be $2,015,103 and Floyd County Schools will receive $2,005,542.
To manage the earlier 6% cuts, state education officials imposed a hiring freeze starting last October. They also restricted travel, clamped down on approving new vendor contracts and halted in-person staff training and professional development, among other measures.
But the previous cuts did not include the nearly $11.7 billion in funding the agency proposed to dole out for local school districts based on the number of students they enroll. Those funds take up by far the largest chunk of the state’s education spending and pay for bottom-line classroom programs and teacher salaries.
State officials expect to get more detailed rundowns next week from local school districts on how they plan to absorb the cuts. All aspects of their budgets — from personnel costs to contracts to facility rents and more — will be evaluated, officials said Thursday.
In local discussions, Rome school board member John Uldrick said he would be opposed to losing programs like music or art as a result of the state cuts — and several other school board members voiced their agreement. Floyd County school board members have also said they do not want to eliminate programs.
“These are incredibly challenging times and everybody’s got a lot of very, very important work to do the best we can for students, administrators and teachers throughout the state of Georgia,” said state board Chairman Scott Sweeney.
Jason Downey, also a state school board member, said he has fielded calls from people worried about extended furloughs and shortened school weeks. He urged his board to communicate clearly with the public as decisions are made in the coming weeks on how the cuts will affect local schools.
“This is like (the 2008 recession) and in many ways could be much worse,” Downey said. “We just need to be sure that everyone is well informed.”