School leader hands challenge to legislator
by Megan Thornton
December 12, 2012 12:01 AM | 2817 views | 1 1 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
CANTON — The Cherokee County legislative delegation is poised for change following the departure of Sen. Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock), but the lawmakers should expect to face a challenge from Cherokee County School District Superintendent Dr. Frank Petruzielo to return to fully funding public education.

At the board of education’s work session last Thursday, Petruzielo spoke plainly and directly in addressing questions surrounding Quality Basic Education, the state’s funding mechanism for all Georgia school districts.

Petruzielo said CCSD has lost $147 million over the last 10 years owed by the state under the QBE formula. This year alone, the school system anticipates losing another $26.5 million.

“We’re not talking about chopped liver here,” Petruzielo said of the lost funds. “This is not small change.”

At the work session, Petruzielo gave history of QBE, explaining the formula was Georgia’s answer to lawsuits filed in California and Texas in 1985 that illustrated the inequality between rich and poor school districts.

In the first year the formula was established, the state provided 60 percent of operating funds and local school boards were expected to provide 40 percent. Local boards now pay 47 percent into their own operating funds while the state only provides 53 percent.

“This is money that the school district is owed under the statutorily-required QBE formula — the one that the Legislature treats as optional when in fact there is constitutional (and) statutory responsibility to do that job,” Petruzielo said.

Further exacerbating the funding shortage, legislators mandated a freeze on raising property tax mills from 2009 to 2011, leaving local school boards without an avenue to maintain existing educational programs.

“The same people that put the board in the posture of not being able to cover these costs then criticized the board for a ‘back-door increase’ when they’re trying to make up the difference when state dollars do not come that are deserved and that are really called for under the formula,” Petruzielo said.

The “knock-out punches,” Petruzielo said, came in the form of austerity budget cuts introduced in 2002, which resulted in unilateral reductions in QBE earnings.

In the past 10 years, Georgia has seen 200,000 additional students enroll in its public school system. Despite being characterized by Gov. Nathan Deal and the Georgia Legislature as “fully funded,” capital outlay funds from the state have not increased in that time, Petruzeilo said.

“You would not have to be a mathematician to figure out that 200,000 more kids would require typically more schools—planned schools, equipment, technology, books and the like,” Petruzielo said.

But Petruzielo said the state fails to increase funding in capital outlay, despite the surge in students.

“If you were trying to run a business that way you’d be out of business,” Petruzielo said.

Petruzielo said CCSD annually receives about $8 million from the state in capital outlay funds, which would be just enough to build one new elementary school every three years. The district has built 31 new or replacement facilities and building additions since 2001.

“If we had settled for that… you can pick two or three elementary schools on there and then you could cross everything else off,” Petruzielo said of a list of projects completed since 2001. “We would be the trailer capitol of the world.”

Petruzielo said most Georgia school districts have to ask voters to approve Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax because they are starving for extra resources, as the district did in 2001, 2006 and 2011.

He went on to say the cuts have real affects on the school system.

“If that money had been in the mail this year, we could have restored our 180 day school year for kids. We could have hired 285 more teachers. We could have reduced class size significantly across the system and we could have eliminated all (eight) of our unpaid furlough days for our employees,” Petruzielo said.

Additionally, revenue from the county’s tax digest has declined over $30 million since 2008-2009 after losing $2 billion in value.

“The only way we’re going to get any kind of help in order to deal with this problem, this crisis, is if somehow there can be state money,” Petruzielo said.

Federal stimulus money also disappeared in 2011-2012, but the district will see an even greater loss if national leaders do not come to a compromise before the so-called fiscal cliff.

“We thought maybe, well, that’s as bad as it can get,” Petruzielo said. “They haven’t been giving us anything so they’ll continue to give us nothing. But unfortunately, if we go over the fiscal cliff and sequestration occurs, we actually lose a ton of money in Title I and IDEA, which is special ed money,” Petruzielo said.

Statewide, Georgia would lose $38.8 million in Title I funds and $27.6 million in IDEA with cuts for Cherokee County likely somewhere close to $2.4 million, Petruzielo said.

“These are cuts in the area where you can least afford to have cuts because these are the kids that are at-risk,” Petruzielo said. “These are the kids that are furthest away from the target.”

To conclude his presentation, Petruzielo said QBE is not the problem, it’s the solution.

“The challenge for the governor and the General Assembly is to fund it,” Petruzielo said. “I wish they had the capacity to do that and they may not without making some unbelievably tough decisions.”

Petruzielo said state dollars are the last hope in order to deal with problems articulated in the board-approved 2013-14 Legislative Program.

“It’s starting to look like this will be one of toughest years we’ve ever had,” Petruzielo said.

Board member Rob Usher asked what, if any, legal recourse the district might have to recoup the funds.

“Whether you win or not I think it would be the goal to open their eyes and let them know,” Usher said.

Petruzielo said it’s a hard sell to sue the state given the nature of the economy, but is probably inevitable.

“Until the economy comes back and there is a fighting chance that everybody has to do the right thing, I think we have to work as cooperatively as we can,” Petruzielo said.

But Petruzielo ended on an optimistic note on the future of public education.

“I’d like to think that people still care about public education and still recognize that we are the place where 95 percent of the kids are educated in this country and in this state and that there has to be a recurring revenue source to be able to give them the things we need to give them,” he said.

Comments-icon Post a Comment
What money?
December 12, 2012
Where exactly would Mr. P like the state to find all this money? EVERY state, county and city agency has had to deal with doing the same or more with less money for years. There is just no where else to get money from. The state can't give you money they don't have. Common sense would tell you that. Oh, I forgot. Common sense is hard to find around the county office.
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