The Cobb Board of Education heard a proposed budget for the first time Monday that includes unexpected good news about increases in funding from the county’s property tax digest and Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration.
Outgoing Superintendent Michael Hinojosa’s proposed almost $890 million balanced budget is a far cry from the fears district administrators expressed in October when a $79 million deficit was forecasted.
“In my 25 years as a superintendent, I’ve never seen a swing from an $80 million negative to a potential positive,” Hinojosa said.
Tentative approval of the budget is scheduled for April 24 and final adoption is set for May 29. Before officially adopting the budget, public forums will be held.
A $21 million jump in the county’s tax digest, a reduction in state austerity cuts of about $20 million and some one-time funding sources helped turnaround the district’s grave projections, said Chief Financial Officer Brad Johnson.
Cobb’s schools are funded mostly by local property taxes and Georgia’s school funding formula, called Quality Basic Education or QBE.
“Over the past six years, both of these sources have plummeted into what I would call a perfect storm,” Johnson said.
Last year, the local tax digest decreased by 2 percent, making this year’s 4.5 percent growth unexpected.
“Evidently, the economy continues to show evidence of turning around,” Johnson said.
Hinojosa’s proposed budget includes returning to a 180-day school year with no furlough and the hiring of 193 new teachers — 163 general education and 30 special education.
A 50-cent per hour raise for school nurses is also proposed along with an increase in pay for substitute teachers from $69 per day to $80. Two new custodial positions and three security officers are also recommended.
Employees may also be eligible for raises.
The school board will also consider giving paraprofessionals raises.
“This is just a dramatic turnaround from where we’ve been in the last few years,” Johnson said.
Raises for teachers or more teachers?
Under the proposed budget, about $6.7 million is set aside for hiring even more teachers than the 193 proposed or giving existing teachers a raise.
“Candidly, I’d like to see what we can do to reduce class sizes even further,” said Scott Sweeney, board member.
Though maximum classroom sizes are set by the state, Cobb has received waivers in the past to put more students in classes than recommended. At first, Cobb put five extra students in classrooms, but last year, the district got permission to have eight additional students.
High school math, English, social studies, science and foreign language classes can have a maximum of 32 students per classroom, according to the state. In middle school, the maximum is 28 students. For grades four and five, it is also 28 students. Grades one through three are set at 21 students, and kindergarten is 18 students.
“Since 2008 and 2009, we have had at least 1,300 fewer teachers while we also have enrollment growth,” Sweeney said.
Two hundred more teachers won’t fix the problem, Sweeney said, but “we’re making some good progress.”
Randy Scamihorn, board vice chair, said he would like to see the district make reducing class sizes a priority and still give teachers a small raise.
School officials will reach out to principals, Scamihorn said, to determine the best use of the $6.7 million it has to allocate.
Optimism is coupled with caution
Though unexpected increases in revenue are anticipated to help schools get back on track, the district plans to be conservative, Johnson said.
“I want to remind the board that there’s still $45 million in austerity cuts in the state funding formula,” Johnson said.
That money represents about 500 teachers, Sweeney said, who Cobb can’t hire.
He’s cautious because he maintains there’s no guarantee the state will fully fund schools in the coming years. The state formula hasn’t been fully carried out since 2003, Sweeney said, when the “economy was on fire.”
“Next year is not an election year, so I think what you’re going to see is less pressure to fully fund the QBE formula,” Sweeny said.
There’s no reason not to expect the county’s tax digest to continue increasing, Johnson said, and the district should be able to sustain the new hires and return to a 180-day year with no furloughs.
“It would be crazy to do away with them and then next year bring them back,” Johnson said.
Scamihorn said the district must continue to “gently pressure” state officials to make education funding a priority.
Kathleen Angelucci, board chairwoman, agreed suggesting the conversations board members and administrators had with state lawmakers and the governor’s office need to happen yearly and that Cobb’s balanced budget cannot be a “one-time influx of money.”