Amidst budget talks for the upcoming school year, Cherokee County School Superintendent Dr. Frank Petruzielo released a letter Tuesday “correcting the record” regarding state budget information provided to local business leaders by state House Rep. Calvin Hill (R-Hickory Flat).
Petruzielo said in a letter to the Cherokee County Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Directors he wished to provide a “more accurate” account of the district’s financial situation in facing $24.8 million in state budget cuts this year.
The dire budget scenario conflicts with a more positive report produced by the House Budget and Resource Office that Hill, chairman of Cherokee’s legislative delegation, provided in a document to the Chamber board to review at its meeting last Thursday.
Hill argued Wednesday that the state’s numbers “are the facts” and he’s proud state leaders were able to fully fund Quality Basic Education, the state’s statutorily required formula used to fund local school systems.
The superintendent took issue with the report stating “there were no reductions to QBE” this fiscal year and that state equalization grants, used to narrow the gap between systems in terms of property tax wealth per pupil, were increased by $38.3 million, reflecting full funding under QBE for the first time since 2009 at $474.4 million.
The numbers in the report also show state revenues have grown by 3 percent, allowing over $289 million in “new funds” to be allotted to the state education budget. House Bill 106 also added $146.5 million to fully fund QBE growth of more than 23,000 students, a 1.4 percent increase statewide.
However, Cherokee’s financial picture isn’t looking as bright as state numbers would suggest, according to the superintendent’s letter.
“We have been informed by the state that yet another annual, so-called ‘austerity’ QBE reduction of $24.8 million in state earnings has been applied to next year’s (FY 2014) QBE budget that pertains to the Cherokee County School District,” Petruzielo wrote. “And, Cherokee County’s equalization grant funding of ($500,000) has been eliminated for next year.”
Petruzielo also notes the county will likely see a “flat” local tax digest, though decreased collections over the last three years amount to about $30 million in lost revenues. The cost of insuring non-certified district employees through the State Health Benefit Plan will increase from $7.6 million this year and is predicted to go up to $10.1 million for the 2013-14 budget.
“All of these increases have simply been passed along to the local school board, while the Georgia Legislature has withdrawn literally hundreds of millions in previous state funding support for these employees’ health insurance,” he wrote.
Petruzielo added that overall, CCSD will see no funding relief to return to a full 180-day school calendar, reduce class sizes or eliminate eight furlough days for all district employees.
“We felt that providing Chamber of Commerce leaders with an accurate portrayal of our projected 2013-12 QBE funding and the extraordinary fiscal impact of continuing to provide non-certified employees with health insurance (and/or privatizing services that these employees currently provide for necessary benefit cost avoidance) was important, since the attached report is inaccurate and could lead the business community and others to believe the assertion that we are fully funded and that there was no reductions next year to the statutorily-required QBE state funding formula,” the memo states.
However, Hill maintained Wednesday that QBE is fully funded.
“That’s the job that we (as legislators) can do and the only thing we can do,” he said. “I’m not sure of the relationship between the Georgia Department of Education and the school district, and I’m not sure how much of that money Cherokee County actually ends up with because that’s not a legislative function.”
While Hill agreed with Petruzielo that local funding from the tax digest has dropped dramatically over the last few years, he refused to comment on financial numbers from the school district.
“This is the official analysis by the House Budget department,” he said of the document provided to Chamber directors. “…The (state) budget is out there. The facts are the facts.”
Hill said the argument is a matter of “semantics” and district officials are considering dollars “promised” under the formula and not actual increases that have been provided by the state.
“My job as a member of the appropriations committee is to look at straight dollars — not semantics — and do everything we can with the dollars we’ve received as state revenue and try to appropriate them in the best manner possible,” Hill said. “As the report stated, many other departments have been requested by the government to have 3 percent cuts. The Department of Education was not. Beyond that, what the (DOE) does with the monies is not a matter of the Legislature.”
He added he was “very proud” the Legislature did increase school funding in challenging economic times.
“I would love as much as anybody to go back and get money from four years ago, six years ago, 10 years ago that’s owed, but you can’t,” he said. “But we can be very proud to fully fund education in the face of the tremendous recession the country is having to live with today.”
Chamber CEO Pam Carnes said Hill was invited to speak to the board to provide highlights of this year’s legislative session.
“Due to an unforeseen conflict, he was unable to attend so he provided the handout which was provided to the board,” Carnes said.
Carnes said she forwarded the superintendent’s memo to chamber directors Wednesday. Cherokee Board of Education Chair Janet Read said in talking with the superintendent, they both wanted to accurately reflect what the district’s financial picture is going to look like this coming year.
“I just think it’s important for people to understand that we are still not receiving the money we earned based on the formula,” Read said. “If they (the Legislature) had funded us with the full amount, we wouldn’t be talking about furlough days and some of the other things we’re looking at.”