Georgia allotted more than 55 percent of its $18.3 billion in funds to education alone in its general budget breakdown for 2008.
Yet officials say there is a continued shortfall at the local level because state contributions aren’t measuring up – for a number of reasons.
"In the last five years, we’ve seen $4.8 million in austerity cuts in Bryan County, so almost $1 million each year," said Board of Education member Mary Warnell. "In order to keep the program going the way it’s supposed to, you have to find the money locally. It’s not that we are against additional education programs, but if the state continues to give us more mandated programs, then we feel they should provide us with the funding to do it."
Susan Walker, policy and research director for the Georgia Partnership of Excellence in Education (GPEE), said budget hearings for the fiscal year 2009 are currently underway.
"A state budget is considered not only the most important fiscal document but also the most important policy document," Walker said.
But while state funding continues to increase in dollar amounts, the percentage of contributions has not measured up.
In 1996, local school districts contributed 39 percent of their own funding while the state contributed 61 percent, Walker said. In 2006, after repeated state funding cuts, that revenue split shifted to 45 percent local, 55 percent state.
"For smaller school districts with a smaller tax base, this has been especially problematic, as they have faced the burden of ‘making up the difference’ in order to meet the needs of their students," she said.
Another round of austerity cuts are proposed for Fiscal Year 2009, but Walker hopes some of the legislative efforts may help restore that.
To that end, Warnell recently went to Washington, D.C. for the Federal Relations Network.
"We met about federally funding mandated programs and we had a very good conference with our senators. I know they understand the need for fully funded mandates. They understand we cannot make up all that difference," she said. "At this time, special education is nowhere near the funding percentage it was promised and there’s a lot of money that needs to be found on the local level to make up the difference."
Walker said tax reform proposals need to be closely watched in regard to education. She used House Speaker Glenn Richardson’s GREAT plan as one example, noting if the elimination of property taxes becomes a reality, school funding would be even more limited.
She said a radical tax change could cause implications such as jeopardizing local control, overlooking or ignoring the unique needs of individual schools with state-distributed funding, the possible elimination of locally-funded school programs and a possible state budget shortfall.
Warnell said this year’s legislative session has brought in new tax bills that have changed weekly, making it hard to keep up with the most recent tax topics.
Schools Superintendent Dr. Sallie Brewer said the governor and General Assembly need to conduct a study to determine the appropriate revisions to the state’s revenue and tax structure – prior to any legislative changes.
"The goal should be a balanced tax system that does not give advantages to one class of taxpayers at the expense of another," the Bryan County school board legislative brochure said.
Brewer did give thanks to the House of Representatives and the work she said they’ve done on the 2008 budget, noting they helped ‘guard’ the district’s current funding.
Walker said the state needs do more for education funding because investing in today’s school children will bring about a return within the next decade, if not sooner.
"Education is economic development. Quality investments in the education of our youth are critical in building the foundation of an educated, engaged, productive citizenry. When we fail to adequately invest in educational excellence at the state or local level, it is not only our schools and kids who suffer," she said. "Our entire state will pay the price in the future."