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Ga. budget offers schools end of major new cuts

ATLANTA (AP) -- Georgia schools would see a modest financial boost under a budget that Republican Gov. Nathan Deal proposed last week, though they would not recoup more than $1 billion in state funding lost over the past few years.

Deal made education funding a key part of his annual State of the State address to lawmakers, calling schools the "front line in our effort to create prosperity." He promised $258 million to help cover growth in enrollment in the state's K-12 and higher education systems. His plan also contained nearly $56 million to fund regularly scheduled pay raises for teachers.

"It is here that we make our most strategic investment in the future," Deal told a joint session of lawmakers on Jan. 10.

Education officials, many of whom are still examining Deal's proposals in detail, said they were relieved to see the end of the deep funding cuts common during the Great Recession, when lawmakers hacked away at state spending. To cope with past cuts, school systems have resorted to saving money by having larger classes, employing fewer teachers, cutting teacher pay and even reducing the number of school days.

"The best news is that it didn't get any worse," said Herb Garrett, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association, about Deal's budget.

If Deal, the husband of a teacher, is trying to gradually dig the school system out of a financial hole, schools still have a long climb. Georgia is supposed to use a standardized formula to determine how much funding schools get from the state. In the current fiscal year, Deal and lawmakers opted to give the K-12 education system more than $1.1 billion less than what's recommended in the formula, according to the state Department of Education.

"The bottom line is, because of the recession the state is still only sending local systems about 80 percent of what the formula calls for," said Garrett, referring to a gap that school leaders call Georgia's "austerity cuts."

Rep. Larry O'Neal, the Republican House leader, said he was glad to see Deal propose gradually raising spending on education. O'Neal said he worried that weak schools could prove a deterrent to attracting businesses to Georgia. He said local school officials commonly ask him when the austerity cuts will be reversed.

"As far as restoring the cuts, there's not much to restore in the sense that most of the money would have really gone to personnel," O'Neal said. "And you can't really restore personnel that could have been here three years ago. You can have personnel going forward to do a better job, and that's what this governor is trying to do."

There are smaller trims scattered in Deal's budget. For example, agriculture education programs would lose more than $192,000. The state would spend $2.6 million less on student transportation. Another $19,000 would be lost for a high school program for gifted students.

Another of Deal's education goals comes at a price. His budget would increase the school calendar by 10 days for children enrolled in state-funded pre-kindergarten classes, restoring half of the days he cut last year to help the program stay afloat. The governor would help pay for the extra days by cutting slots for 2,000 pre-k students.

Deal's proposal also contains money for new programs, including $1.6 million for a mentoring program meant to help students read at their grade level and funding for 400 new medical residency slots.

Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers, described Deal's budget proposal as a mixed bag for educators.

She credited Deal with restoring $3.7 million in funding for school nurses, but said it wasn't enough to make up for past cuts.

"It's a good-faith effort," she said. "I'm glad to see the governor values that we do have school nurses in the state. But God knows it's far from what we really need."

Turner was more critical of Deal's proposal to give charter schools $9 million after a Georgia Supreme Court ruling put those schools at risk of losing half their funding. Her public teachers' association considers those schools an expensive but unproven experiment.