It amazed outgoing Superintendent Michael Hinojosa. He said, “In my 25 years as a superintendent, I’ve never seen a swing from an $80 million negative to a potential positive.” Okay, so he rounded it up, but his perspective is right on.
Last year, the board had to bite the bullet again, with a budget that included five furlough days for teachers and staff, a reduction of 182 teaching positions through attrition and withdrawal of $41 million from reserves to avoid red ink. That budget of $856.3 million, which runs through June 30 this year, closed a deficit of $86.4 million.
This year’s good fortune stems from the windfall of a $21 million spurt in the county tax digest, the restoration of about $20 million of austerity cuts by the state and some one-time funding sources, according to Brad Johnson, chief financial officer of the school district.
It’s remarkable, if not amazing, that the county tax digest went from a two percent decrease last year to a 4.5 percent increase this year — evidence of the economy turning around, Johnson said. Ditto for the state, which had to whack local funding during the Great Recession and its aftermath.
The new budget calls for a pay raise for school nurses and substitute teachers, and the board may also give raises to paraprofessionals and other employees. The budget sets aside $6.7 million for hiring more than the 193 proposed in the budget or giving teachers a raise. That’s a tough call, because on the one hand, the two percent teacher pay cut of several years ago has not been restored, and on the other hand, hiring more teachers would help to reduce class sizes and maybe relieve some of the stress on teachers.
The district has gone from five more students than state-recommended in classrooms to eight last year, a situation that has to be taxing to teachers with such large classes.
The windfalls from local and state funding should be taken for what they are — unexpected, one-time increases — and school district CFO Johnson says the district plans to be conservative. Still, he apparently expects the county tax digest to keep increasing, thus enabling the district to continue paying for the proposed full 180-day year and the new teachers. Johnson pointed out that Cobb is still looking at $45 million in state austerity cuts. Board member Scott Sweeney put his finger on one of the variables when it comes to the outlook for state funds. He said, “Next year is not an election year.” You might conclude that he was suggesting politics has something to do with state funding for schools.
Anyway, for now, the school board has the unexpected problem of how to spend instead of what to cut.