By Beau Evans
Capitol Beat News Service
Georgia school officials adopted a budget for the upcoming school year Tuesday that cuts roughly $950 million in funds for basic classroom education due to economic pains from the coronavirus pandemic.
The 2021 fiscal year budget has also been trimmed to reduce funds for career training, grants for special-needs students and state contributions to the teachers’ pension fund.
Rusk Roam, the state Department of Education’s chief financial officer, noted the budget cuts were tough but not quite as dire as initially expected. He added the state will be able to fully fund $726 million for financially struggling schools.
“To say the least, this has been a long, challenging road to get here,” Roam said during a state Board of Education meeting on Tuesday.
Local school districts will be left to determine how to swallow cuts for their schools in terms of whether to furlough teachers or reduce the number of classroom days for the 2020-21 school year.
Teacher salaries will not change despite the budget cuts, officials said Tuesday.
School funding has been propped up by roughly $457 million in funds from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Among a host of cuts, the $11.7 billion Georgia schools budget trims about $6.1 million in grant funding for students with autism and severe emotional behavioral challenges, $2 million in grants for career and agricultural education, and $700,000 earmarked for feminine hygiene products.
It also reduces the employer share of the Teachers Retirement System from about 21% to 19%.
Additionally, the state board moved Tuesday to spend $4 million on purchasing electronic devices for online learning and to pump an additional $1.2 million into a state-run virtual school program to hire 100 teachers for online classes.
Georgia’s roughly 1.7 million students shifted to virtual learning as in-person classes closed across the state in late March due to the pandemic. Officials expect to see a mix of virtual and in-person classes for the upcoming year, depending on each district’s ability to resume relatively normal operations.
Up in the air is whether Georgia will be able to pocket roughly $7.5 million budgeted for preparing year-end tests. State officials have asked the federal government to waive administering the Georgia Milestones assessments and other reporting requirements for the 2020-21 school year.
The state school budget poised to take effect Wednesday was set last week by the General Assembly, which approved about $2.2 billion in cuts to state agencies. Gov. Brian Kemp signed the 2021 fiscal year budget Tuesday morning.
(Capitol Beat is a nonprofit news service operated by the Georgia Press Educational Foundation that provides coverage of state government through Georgia Press Association members, such as the White County News.)