Yet that’s just what Cobb’s elected officials believe we are willing to do.
At a recent East Cobb County Council of PTAs’ panel discussion on Educational Funding, Cobb County Board of Education Chair Randy Scamihorn (Post 1) was clearly caught off guard by the unanimous show of hands when he asked the packed audience at East Side Elementary who would vote for a millage rate increase.
Dr. Hinojosa, CCSD Superintendent, must have shared Scamihorn’s surprise, referring to the millage rate as “the M word.” But Cobb voters are realizing we’ve passed the tipping point — and our schools are seeing the unwelcome results of lack of funding.
Cobb citizens should take note when elected officials who campaigned on fiscally conservative platforms start advocating for new or increased taxes. And that’s exactly what’s happening. In February, Post 5 board member David Banks summed up the bleak educational funding picture by saying, “Cobb Schools do not have a spending problem; what we have is a revenue problem.” Both Banks and Post 6 member Scott Sweeney have been proactive in educating the public at several meetings around east Cobb.
The current projected budget shortfall for the next school year is approximately $79 million, and we’re starting from a deeper hole than in previous years. We don’t have excess SPLOST funds and we’ve already tapped our reserves; there is no “pot of gold.” This is a very real budget deficit. As Sweeney said multiple times at an Oct. 30 ECCC committee meeting, “We are broke.”
The BOE is legally bound to approve a balanced budget by June 30, 2014. Last year’s budget included five furlough days, increased class sizes and other cuts. Further increasing class sizes will turn our “classrooms into warehouses,” as Banks put it, while adding more furlough days “puts the burden on our staff” along with decreasing critical instruction time.
The math just doesn’t add up. Parents are concerned about class sizes and cutting enrichment programs — music, art and sports. Conservatives are concerned about “cutting the fat,” but, according to an Atlanta newspaper story in May, “Cobb County, while having the second-largest student population in the state, has one of the smallest central-office staffs and some of the lowest costs.”
Schools fortunate enough to have foundations and supplemental income are using funds faster than they can be replaced. East Cobb teachers and administrators have done all they can to shield students and families from the impact of years of budget cuts. One east Cobb middle school has been rebuked by the fire marshal for blocking fire exits in a classroom stuffed with too many desks.
Where is the money? State legislators may tell you funding for education has increased, but what they won’t tell you (or perhaps they don’t realize) is that any additional monies for education have been restricted to health care or other designated areas — not for students. Actually, state education funding per student for Cobb has decreased by 16.9 percent since 2002 (Georgia Budget & Policy Institute presentation). The biggest impact on Cobb education funding has been austerity cuts implemented by state legislators since 2003 to the tune of $491,296,767 — that’s almost $66 million for this year alone.
Austerity cuts equate to deductions in the funding formula that state legislators themselves defined as required to deliver Quality Basic Education in Georgia; in other words, implementing austerity cuts to education means legislators know they are not fully and adequately funding our students’ education. And more austerity cuts are planned for next year’s state budget.
Educational funding discussions usually include the Cobb school tax exemption for those over age 62, which equaled about $62 million last year. Championing changes to this exemption, which would require an amendment to the state Constitution, would equate to political suicide for the Cobb delegation and would almost surely not pass with Cobb voters, the majority of whom are senior citizens.
Another popular point of contention is the state’s Fair Share/Equalization formula that takes monies from a few counties, including Cobb, and distributes them to other Georgia counties’ school systems; the formula does not account for monies Cobb isn’t collecting, such as those who take advantage of the over 62 exemption.
The Cobb delegation is grossly outnumbered by legislators from recipient counties, thereby making it unlikely to successfully eliminate or even reduce this entitlement. Cobb paid out almost $131.5 million in Fair Share last year.
Call Gov. Deal and the Cobb delegation. Tell them it’s unrealistic to expect our educators to continue the high level of quality instruction without adequate funds. Tell them you are willing to support a millage rate increase or for-education sales tax. And tell them you understand the tough political position they’re in — but that education is more important than politics.
Over 100 people raised their hands earlier this week in support of a millage rate increase. Cobb schools are one of the largest employers in Cobb County, with over 3,500 employees. How many of these 3,500 would raise their hands and vote for a millage rate increase or a for-education sales tax? Apparently more than some elected officials thought.
No one likes to pay more, especially when our economy is just starting to look better. But Cobb voters are realizing that penalizing education is penalizing Cobb — today and tomorrow. The time is now to do something different. As Abraham Lincoln said, “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”
Susan McCullough is a writer and mother of two children in east Cobb schools.