Pursuing Public School Budgets

Credit where credit is due: Some school leaders aren’t complaining about the small amount of state money cut from their budgets, but are instead moving forward with the much larger influx of federal money that more than makes up for it.

Is it enough to end the silly narrative that public schools are somehow struggling financially with “austerity” cuts?

We’ll see.

Cobb County is the example I had in mind. Recently, the state’s second-largest school district revealed its proposal for spending the first chunk of money it will receive from the American Rescue Plan that Congress passed earlier this year. One of the items on the list? Backfilling the state funding that was cut earlier this year.

That line item accounts for only $28.3 million of the $160 million Cobb will eventually see from that law, according to a report in the Marietta Daily Journal. Almost $40 million will go to address learning losses resulting from the pandemic. Technology purchases will take up another $25 million, and a number of smaller items will consume the rest of the initial infusion of $104 million. Note that there’ll be another $56 million to come.

And that’s from one of the Covid-related emergency legislation. Cobb has received about $100 million more from earlier measures. Last month, the district’s board members approved a $1.2 billion budget that includes raises ranging from 4% to 8.6% for “every non-temporary staff (member) in the district,” according to a news release.

I give you this example to illustrate just how well-off every school district across Georgia ought to be coming out of the pandemic, despite a 4% cut in state funding each of the past two years.

Altogether, Georgia’s school districts are receiving about $3.82 billion from the American Rescue Plan alone. As it happens, that’s almost exactly 10 times the $382.7 million in state budget cuts this year – which may well be restored anyway next year, when legislators pass their amended 2022 budget.

But again, this was only one stream of emergency federal funding going to our schools. The first major stream was from the CARES Act passed in 2020. For three out of five districts in Georgia, the money from that legislation surpassed the state budget cut from last year. For those that didn’t, another pot of money from the second CARES Act put them over the top.

In most cases, between the two measures, we are talking about a difference of millions of dollars more than the state cut. Which makes sense, since statewide we’re talking about extra funding that’s 5.5 times greater than what was cut.

How do we know public schools are swimming in money? They’re asking for the public’s help in deciding how to spend it. Atlanta Public Schools is one of many districts to seek public comment on how to spend the millions of dollars – in Atlanta’s case, hundreds of millions of dollars – they’ve received in federal funds.

It seems some districts, maybe most, maybe all, truly have more money than they know what to do with.

After years, going on decades, of educational leaders talking about austerity cuts, and then talking about the lingering effect of past austerity cuts, and then talking about the need for more money beyond “fully funding” the state’s school budget formula, this is nothing short of remarkable.

And to reiterate, there’s every reason to believe the $382.7 million cut from this year’s budget will be erased during the 2022 legislative session. To be precise, there are 3 billion reasons to believe so – one for each of the $3 billion of increased revenue the state enjoyed in the budget year that just ended.

At least, restoring the cuts will be the default option for state lawmakers. Perhaps they should first peruse the budgets of the public schools in their districts, and decide if anyone is really missing that money.

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