“Gov. Deal needs to feel uncomfortable,” Sweeney said to about 100 parents gathered at East Side Elementary School. “He needs to think the people of Cobb County will not support him unless he writes in additional funding for education. It’s a fight for dollars.”
Board Chairman Randy Scamihorn and member David Banks, who were also at the meeting, agreed with Sweeney.
“The second largest school system in the state of Georgia is broke. That’s alarming,” Scamihorn said.
Instead of pointing fingers at the board members for failing to balance the budget, Sweeney told parents they should be on their phones with their elected officials, asking for state funding.
Sweeney said if constituents make enough of a stink in the coming year — an election year — the district might see some of those funds this year.
Superintendent Michael Hinojosa is projecting a $79 million shortfall for the 2014-15 school year, which begins in July.
Reserves, teacher furloughs, staff cuts?
The district has a reserve fund of about $75 million, said Brad Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer. Johnson said dipping into the fund again would be less than optimal, as he would like the district to maintain at least enough money in the fund to run the school district for a month, $71 million.
“We keep using one-time sources for solutions to recurring problems,” Johnson said.
Other options the board has to reduce the budget shortfall are to increase furlough days or cut teaching staff, which would increase class sizes. Both options, Hinojosa said, are bad decisions to make, but might be necessary to balance the budget this year.
Each furlough day saves the district about $3 million, Hinojosa said, but reduces the time students are in the classroom.
He did not address the possibility of cutting staff at the central office.
The state has offered the district less money each year since 2003, shorting the school district a total of about $500 million, Johnson claims.
Two years ago, the state withheld $72 million, and this year it has withheld $66 million, he said.
Board members say if the district can get that money from the state, they would be able to cover most of their expected shortfall for next year.
Parents agree to tax hike
Banks has been advocating for a change to the Georgia Constitution that would allow for individual counties to vote to tax themselves for extra school money, on top of county-wide SPLOST.
The Local Education Sales Tax, or LEST, would be an additional 1-cent tax school districts could adopt to fund salaries of teachers and reducing class sizes, Banks said.
Another option would be to increase the millage rate, which is now set at 18.9 mills. The state maximum millage rate is 20 mills. By increasing the millage rate to the maximum of 20 mills, the school district would see an increase of $20 million in revenue, Johnson estimated.
Board members have been staunchly against any increase to the millage rate, Scamihorn said, because they are fiscal conservatives. However, when he asked parents Wednesday if they would be in favor of increasing the millage rate, almost every hand in the room went up.
“If truly raising the millage rate is the answer, then I would do it,” said Mark Aston, parent of a second-grader at East Side Elementary and a sixth-grader at Dodgen Middle.
He said education was the most important place to spend money, and was upset that not everybody in the General Assembly felt that way.
“Nothing is more important than educating children,” he said.
Sandy Glidewell and Jenny Peterson both moved to the county to be in the Cobb County School District, they said. They were impressed with the quality of the schools in the district, and were worried the quality would eventually decline as the finances of the district became less stable. Both women said they would be in support of increasing their taxes if it meant they could maintain the quality of the school system.
“I think it’s unreasonable to expect great schools and not pay more for them. …We can’t get a Rolls Royce for a Chevy price,” said Jenny Peterson, who has a daughter at East Side Elementary.
Both women would be in support of Bank’s proposed LEST tax as well, they said.
If enough parents support raising taxes, as the parents at East Side did, then the board might consider raising the millage rate, Scamihorn said.
Although it would not solve the proposed budget shortfall, it certainly would help, he said.
Still, he was unsure if the board, mostly made up of fiscal conservatives, would be willing to increase taxes this year, he said.
“We might consider that,” he said.