Joint Appropriations Hearings Under the Gold Dome – Declining Student Enrollment, Partial Restoration of QBE, Pandemic Costs & More
Lawmakers got a closer look at Gov. Brian Kemp’s recommendation to restore more than half of the $950 million austerity cut to school districts’ budgets at the joint meeting of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees on Jan. 19. This partial restoration is outlined in his proposed Amended Fiscal Year 2021 budget (AFY21) and continued in his Fiscal Year 2022 spending plan (FY22).
State School Superintendent Richard Woods and Rusk Roam, chief financial officer for the Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE), walked legislators through key elements of Kemp’s spending proposals for K-12 education. To shrink the school austerity cut, Kemp plans to add $567 million to the Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula, which funds K-12 schools, in both the AFY21 and FY22 budgets. He also aims to partially restore cuts to other education programs including agricultural education, Regional Education Service Agencies (RESAs), state schools, technology/career, and testing. More information about Kemp’s budget is available from PAGE HERE.
Despite the partial restoration of QBE funds, state money for public schools is set to be lower in FY22 than the amount proposed in the AFY21 budget. According to Roam, this is due to a decline of about 36,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) students in the 2020-2021 school year. Much of the drop is in elementary grades, particularly kindergarten. Changes to QBE funding in the FY22 budget include:
$567 million in partial austerity cut restoration
$114 million for educator training and experience and health insurance
$57 million for an increase in employer contribution to the Teacher Retirement System (TRS)
$36 million supplement for new charter schools
($166 million) reduction for enrollment decline
The enrollment decline will reduce funding for other GaDOE programs including RESAs and sparsity grants, which provide supplemental funds to small schools in rural districts. Funding for school nurses, which is determined in part by enrollment, will not be cut in FY22. Woods predicted that the enrollment decline will be temporary as families are expected to return to public schools for the 2021-2022 school year. More information about the budget is available from GaDOE HERE, and GaDOE’S 2021 Legislative Priorities are available HERE.
Woods also highlighted the department’s budget priorities:
Increased funding for school counselors to address student mental health needs
Funding for a school social worker position and a school nurse position at GaDOE so the department can better support school districts
Funding for a military liaison at GaDOE, who can provide support to children in military families
Drawing on member feedback, PAGE’s 2021 Legislative Priorities also lift up the need for increased funding for school counselors as well as other strategies to address student mental health concerns.
The $1,000 one-time educator pay supplement referenced by Gov. Kemp in his Jan. 14 State of the State Address was not discussed in the appropriations hearing, as it is funded by federal stimulus dollars, not by the state appropriations process. The State Board of Education is expected to discuss details of the educator supplement at its February meeting. For more on which educators may be eligible, please see the PAGE video report HERE.
Education Budget Big Picture
The partial restoration of QBE funds is good news for school districts. Districts currently face higher costs and will continue to do so throughout the next few years, due to the cost of addressing pandemic health and safety measures and student learning losses. The additional COVID-19 federal relief funds districts will receive via the CARES 2 package will also help schools manage additional costs.
The remaining QBE austerity cut and escalating pandemic costs add strain to district budgets which already are stretched. Several long-standing gaps exist in state funding. Special education and gifted students are not allocated funding for school counselors under the QBE formula. In addition, Georgia’s current counselor-to-student funding ratio falls short of best practice; QBE provides funding for one school counselor per 450 students, well above the recommended one counselor per 250 students. Student transportation costs have soared during the last two decades, but state funding has only inched up. Districts have been left to cover almost the entire pupil transportation cost, now nearly $1 billion statewide each year.
Upbeat Expectations from State Economist
Dr. Jeffrey Dorfman, state fiscal economist and professor of applied and agricultural economics at the University of Georgia, reported that the state’s revenue projections are better than anticipated when lawmakers crafted the original FY 2021 budget last spring. Federal relief funds, particularly unemployment payments, boosted personal income and helped keep retail sales steady. About 123,400 jobs have been lost since November 2019, but most appear among part-time positions. Adding uncertainty to the state’s revenue projections are income tax refunds, which Dorfman expects will be higher than normal due to federal unemployment payments. He anticipates a strong economic recovery for Georgia once vaccinations are widespread and the pandemic is contained.
Budget Process Next Steps
Joint appropriations hearings will continue this week at the Capitol. The House, which is charged with initiating budget legislation, will begin a close review of the AFY21 budget later this week. Led by Chairman Robert Dickey (R-Musella), the education subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to meet Jan. 21 to hear from GaDOE staff again as well as the Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL), which operates the Pre-K program, and the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement (GOSA). The PAGE legislative team will provide updates as the budget process advances.