State lawmakers question impact of proposed school cuts

    State School Superintendent Richard Woods, left, listens Wednesday as Ted Beck, chief financial officer for the Georgia Department of Education, details some of the budget changes being proposed. House and Senate joint budget committees have hosted a series of hearings this week as they grapple with proposed statewide agency cuts. Screen grab of Georgia House online streaming

    Questions have emerged over what some proposed cuts to education spending may mean for the state’s low-performing schools and for state schools for the deaf and blind.

    State lawmakers quizzed state education officials about the proposed budget reductions during the Department of Education’s presentation on Wednesday. School leaders say the department will remain flexible, but they tried to reassure lawmakers that the cuts under consideration won’t hurt students.

    Last fall, Gov. Brian Kemp mandated state agencies and departments trim 4% this year and another 6% in next year’s budget as the state dealt with sluggish revenues and braced for a potential recession.

    Most of K-12 education was spared from any budget cuts. Kemp’s proposed budget also fully funds Georgia’s K-12 education formula for the third consecutive year and includes $360 million for teacher pay raises, fulfilling a promise the governor made on the campaign trail to boost teacher pay by $5,000.

    But in some cases, programs directly tied to students are facing some reductions, including a recommended $1.4 million reduction this year and another $890,000 in next year’s budgets for state schools for the deaf and blind in Macon, Clarkston and Cave Springs.

    House Appropriations Chairman Terry England said he has concerns about what that means for the services those students receive.

    “This General Assembly has invested bond funds and cash funds to make improvements to those facilities,” the Auburn Republican said. “The idea has been to open more services to students that they’re not able to get locally.”

    Ted Beck, chief financial officer for the DOE, said some of reductions are unfilled vacant positions.

    “This (budget) gives (staff) enough flexibility to adapt over the course of the academic year to meet the needs that arise,” Beck said. “It’s not going to be easy but they don’t feel like it’s going to be a tremendous change in the academic or residential services they provide.”

    There’s also a proposed $2-plus million reduction next year to the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support that provides services to students with severe emotional or behavioral disorders.

    A significant portion of the cut is based on numbers that show fewer students are at the residential treatment facilities where the DOE covers education services, Beck said.

    The education budget also includes changes to programs assisting under-performing schools, including a plan to move the chief turnaround office under the control of the school improvement office.

    Last week, the state school board accepted the resignation of the chief turnaround officer Eric Thomas in the wake of a Department of Education investigation into allegations of discrimination and misuse of funds, the AJC reported.

    Rep. Valencia Stovall, a Forest Park Democrat, said she is worried about how much support those struggling schools would receive if the changes take place in addition to a proposed $713,000 reduction to regional educational service agencies that provide support to school districts.

    “I know when it came to the education committee meetings, (school officials) expressed that they were getting that individual care to find out what was going on in these schools,” Stovall said.

    State Schools Superintendent Richard Woods said that he is confident that combining the turnaround office with the agency’s school improvement office won’t hurt those programs. Still, he said he will continue to evaluate whether any areas should get more resources, he said.

    “What we have done in school improvement has been very effective,” Woods said. “We’re making sure… that we’ll be able to slide things around to really prioritize.”

     

    Stanley Dunlap
    Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.