ATLANTA — Schools across Georgia are bracing for another tough budget year as federal stimulus money dries up and state dollars remain scarce.
Education experts say despite Gov. Nathan Deal's pledge to end furloughs for teachers during his first State of the State address, school districts likely will have to impose unpaid days off to cope with cuts. For cash-strapped districts, Deal's budget proposal released this week was a harsh dose of reality with $747 million in possible cuts to programs like school nurses, student busing and other programs.
"We all knew the funding cliff would be coming in 2012. Well, it's here," said Herb Garrett, director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association.
"Managing the furlough issue is going to continue to be challenge for districts," Garrett said.
Even though the governor's budget gives schools $30 million more than this fiscal year through the Quality Basic Education, overall state funding for education is down because there's no more federal stimulus money.
That means some key programs will take a hit.
For example, student transportation money would be cut $8.3 million and state funding for school nurses would be slashed by $2.7 million. Deal also campaigned on improving school nutrition and talked about it during his State of the State address but has proposed $2.5 million in cuts for nutrition programs.
Deal's spokesman Brian Robinson said education is one of the governor's top priorities, which is why he did what he could to protect schools from reductions when other state departments and agencies could see 7 percent cuts.
"We're making every effort to fully fund our educational system," Robinson said. "He's demonstrating the commitment to our budget and our economic future as well."
Deal's first budget proposal, unveiled on Wednesday, largely delivered on a campaign pledge to bring fiscally conservative muscle to state government. The $18.2 billion spending blueprint slashes 14,000 state jobs, most of them already vacant, and slows the pace of state borrowing for infrastructure projects. He also makes a more modest projection for revenue growth in the coming fiscal year than his predecessor, Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue.
The state faces a $1 billion budget shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1 because it will see federal stimulus dollars end.
"As the governor pointed out, it's our responsibility to practice the principles of conservative government that we preach," Senate President Pro Tempore Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, said.
Deal said Wednesday that Georgia schools received $322 million earlier this school year from the federal Education Jobs bill and they were told to set aside some of those funds to be used in the 2012 fiscal year.
While some districts were able to save some of the money, others had to tap into it. Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said that if districts used that money, those decisions were made at the local level.
"They were told to save local funds, to use this opportunity to put aside some money for future use," he said.
School districts have faced years of brutal cuts in state funding, losing $4 billion under Perdue's eight years at the helm. Schools have resorted to furloughing teachers, laying off workers and cutting programs, and likely won't see any relief in the near term.
"They've done away with everything I think they can. Is the next cut teachers?" said parent Carol Keefer, whose two daughters are in high school in Cherokee County. "I'll be honest with you, I'm glad my kids are almost done with K-12 public education because you see the decline. It's everywhere."
Keefer, who substitute teaches for the school district, said part-time workers and teachers' aides were cut this year, as well as money to bus her daughter's cross-country team to meets at other schools.
Teachers are worried, too.
Robert Meaders, who teaches seventh-grade social studies at Marietta Middle School, said further cuts could mean layoffs and larger class sizes. One of his classes — an enhanced course for fast learners — has doubled from 14 students to 28 in recent years, he said.
"You can't teach 28 enhanced kids at once. They're bouncing off the walls," said Meaders. "At some point, you've got to stop cutting education."
Colleges are taking an even harder hit than K-12 education. Higher education faces cuts of $111 million this fiscal year and $185 million next fiscal year, which begins July 1. And the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship will have to be cut after years of growth outpacing lottery ticket sales.
This year, state lawmakers will hash out how to cut the HOPE program, which has paid for more than 1.4 million Georgians to attend college since 1993.
Options include raising the minimum grade-point average to qualify for the scholarship or eliminating remedial classes from classes covered by the awards. HOPE pays for tuition, some fees and some books, but students will see scholarship amounts scaled back starting in July to help prevent the program from bankruptcy.
State lawmakers must seek a more permanent way to keep the program's cost under control.
Parents like Keefer say not having HOPE available to as many college students will mean some Georgians can't get a higher education because they can't afford it.
"Take away the HOPE and how many kids have you then said to them: 'College is not an option,'" said Keefer. "For this generation, to get a decent job you have to have a college degree."
The Republican-controlled Legislature must approve a budget and will almost certainly make changes to Deal's spending blueprint during the 40-day legislative session.