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The financial impact of COVID-19 will no doubt be felt across the nation and world for years to come, but the local impact could be particularly painful for public school system personnel.
School superintendents across Georgia as well as departments throughout state government were warned last week to prepare for state budget cuts of 14 percent ahead of expected revenue shortfalls for the state estimated between $3 billion and $4 billion.
Grady County school superintendent Dr. Kermit Gilliard told members of the Grady County Board of Education on April 14 that superintendents had been told to prepare for a 10 percent reduction in state funding. Last week’s revised warning issued by chairmen of the Georgia House and Senate appropriations committees were devastating, according to Gilliard.
Dr. Gilliard says a 14 percent cut is approximately $4.2 million. With 90 percent of the school system’s budget being payroll, a $4.2 million hit would mean 10 to 20 days of furloughs for school system personnel.
In the worst financial crisis in recent memory, which was in 2008-2009, the local system was cut five percent or $1.5 million and at that time employees were furloughed up to seven days and supplements were cut up to $1,000.
“We are examining every possibility, but until we know what the actual budget impact will be our hands are tied. I am curious why Governor (Brian) Kemp has been silent. He has not said anything about budget cuts,” Dr. Gilliard said.
Less pay for school system employees means fewer work days. The exact number of furlough days is yet to be determined and a variety of options is being considered including adding days to the current school calendar, increasing fall break to a full week, adding monthly disinfecting days, which would be school holidays for teachers and students.
“We will be discussing some plans with the board next week,” Dr. Gilliard said.
State lawmakers are pushing for Congress to release $500 billion in federal funds to help prop up state budgets in Georgia and across the United States amid the coronavirus-prompted economic downturn.
In a letter Monday, top budget-writing lawmakers in the General Assembly formally asked the state’s congressional delegation to back the $500 billion relief package for state governments, echoing calls by a handful of governors last month for the same amount.
“As one of the 10 largest state economies in the nation, we are experiencing an unprecedented fiscal shock as the world stands still,” reads the letter.
It was signed by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia.
Facing such large budget cuts, state agencies will almost certainly experience painful impacts that could result in scaled-back services and layoffs.
Critics of the 14 percent cut in spending have called for state lawmakers to instead raise revenues via taxes and by ending certain tax exemptions.
Agency heads have been ordered to submit budget-reduction proposals by May 20, around the time lawmakers are set to resume in-person committee meetings.
The General Assembly is poised to resume the 2020 legislative session in mid-June with the budget as the main focus.
“By this time of year, we typically would know what our state funding will be for the next fiscal year. However, this year we will not know anything until later next month. I will feel more comfortable once we know what we are actually dealing with. Hopefully, the states will receive some federal funds to offset these tremendous losses,” Dr. Gilliard said.
On a positive note, the superintendent reported this week that Grady County will receive $1,507,090 in federal stimulus funds to go toward the purchase of technology for virtual learning. Originally, the system had anticipated receiving approximately $1.3 million.
These funds will be combined with digital learning grants recently awarded to the local school system. A $125,000 grant was awarded to Eastside Elementary School and a $146,200 grant was awarded to Washington Middle School.
With the grant funding, the local school system can purchase 292 computers for Washington and 250 for Eastside, according to Gilliard. The superintendent says he is hopeful the stimulus money will make up the difference and provide for other technological infrastructure, as well.
Superintendent Gilliard, with the backing of the school board, is hopeful that laptops and tablets can be purchased for all local students.
Editor’s Note: Reporting by Beau Evans of the Capitol Beat News Service contributed to this report.