Georgians can grasp just how grave the underfunding of education has become when they read about what’s happening in Cobb County, long considered one of the state’s top school districts and among its most stable.
Tonight, the school chief proposed shifting many high school classes into online courses, cutting five days from the school year, eliminating transportation to several thousand students and giving district staff five furlough days to address an $86.4 million deficit.
This is occurring in one of more affluent counties in the state, a county that lured new residents on the reputation of its schools.
How are the rest of Georgia districts — few with the financial resources and educated middle-class populace of Cobb — coping with drastic funding cuts to their schools? Never mind bake sales. Are they holding blood drives?
I’m not sure how happy Cobb parents are going to be when word of these proposed economies reach them. Many parents will have questions about the online delivery of classes for their high school students. It sounds like the classes will follow a blended model, which combines virtual and face-to-face instruction.
To be honest, I would be nervous to have my children in the inaugural application of a blended learning model as there are always kinks, especially with technology.
I listened to a webinar Wednesday on new technologies in the classroom, and one of the concerns was accessibility and functionality. It will be important for Cobb to deal with those issues before it moves large numbers of students to online learning programs.
Here is the AJC story from the Thursday night meeting of the Cobb school board: (Please note that when the AJC story refers to an average compensation of $75,000, that includes all benefits. The average annual paycheck minus benefits is 33.3 percent lower, according to Cobb.)
This is the sixth year the district has made drastic spending reductions, largely because of deep state austerity cuts and lowered property tax revenue. State law doesn’t allow a school district to run a deficit.
“You can get a lot of nickels and dimes out of the cushion, but that’s not going to get you to $86 million,” Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said. “To get to that big of a number, you have to look at where your big numbers are. It’s with a lot of regret that we present this to you, but the facts are the facts.”
Last year, in order to meet a $62 million budget deficit, the district gave its staff two furlough days, eliminated 350 teaching positions and spent $28.2 million in reserve funds, among other things.
The administrators, made up of Cobb budget and academic leaders, are predicting $807.6 million in revenue and $894 million in expenditures next year. Thursday night’s proposal was increased by $6 million after administrators learned of increased health insurance and retirement costs for teachers. It could change, depending on what happens at the state Legislature next week.
The proposal is likely to draw the ire of parents and teachers in the coming weeks. “This is a very difficult situation you’re in,” Hinojosa told board members. “Whenever you’re facing cuts of up to 10 percent of your budget, you’re going to have to have a very difficult conversation.”
The administrators proposed 13 ways in all to cut the budget. Other options included outsourcing janitor services, laying off several school and central office staff and not giving salary increases to remaining employees. Administrators emphasized they avoided laying off teachers, closing schools, and eliminating music, art and kindergarten programs — actions taken by several surrounding districts in recent years.
Administrators proposed spending $22.2 million in reserve funds next year.
As part of an initiative to turn traditional classrooms into online classrooms, administrators envisioned turning entire hallways into computer labs and having students’ schedules intermingled with online courses throughout a typical day.
The 66 teachers who would lead the program would cost the district $31,500 each, versus the average salary of $75,000 for the district’s traditional classroom teachers. he program would save the district $16 million next year. (Please note that posters are explaining the $75,000 figure includes the employer portion of benefits health, retirement and Social Security, not simply the paycheck that a teacher receives.)
“Kudos for this type of innovation and thinking outside the box for how we deliver education,” said board member David Morgan. “I got tired of coming back to the same things every year.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog