ATLANTA — Georgia school districts are bracing for a return to classes as early as this summer.
When they do return, they’ll face a double whammy of challenges – first, from the coronavirus pandemic, and now from major budget cuts they’re expected to face.
The budget cuts are a product of the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic.
Some educators remember a similar economic slowdown more than a decade ago after the housing collapse. It may provide a blueprint for what’s to come this year.
Although schools are empty of students now, school systems continue to spend millions of dollars statewide every day – as students engage teachers in virtual learning settings.
Staff salaries eat up most of a school system's budget, according to Chris Erwin, a retired school superintendent who now serves in the legislature.
"About 90 percent of the school budget is personnel," said Erwin, who retired as Banks County's superintendent, then won a seat in the state House of Representatives. "So if you really want to change and if there’s a dramatic change in your budget, you have to look at personnel."
But school personnel are politically popular.
Last year, the legislature increased the budget for K-12 education by almost seven percent, according to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.
Most of that money was for pay raises for teachers and other staff. This year, the state is expected to cut that same budget by 14 percent.
School systems across Georgia experienced similar cuts in 2011. Many of them furloughed teachers and shortened the school calendar. And some cuts – like for school transportation – were never fully restored.
"Back in 2011, we were as lean as we are now," said Dr. Jeremy Williams, superintendent of the Gainesville city school system.
In 2011, he says Gainesville cut ten days from the school calendar – and came back with fewer teachers and bigger classrooms.
"Although we’re just as lean now as we were back in 2011, the actual costs of salary and benefits continue to rise. So this is a different challenge than we had ten years ago," Williams said.
Part of the reason it’s different is that school systems are still adjusting to virtual learning – and still have no certainty at all as to when or under what circumstances they’ll even go back into the classrooms.
"When we do come back together? How is that going to look different? Are children going to be needing to be spaced out in the classrooms?" Ervin said.
"It may be, how do you partner the virtual (learning) and face-to-face days?" asked Williams. "I can’t put 70 kids on a bus right now. How do you go about checking temperatures? How do you go about running your bus routes?"
Williams said his school system is hoping to cut its budget by declining to fill positions vacated by retiring employees.
But he says staff furloughs and other options will need to be considered -- whenever school resumes, under circumstances still to be determined.
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