Extreme cuts to public education: the wrong path for Georgia’s future

Last week, Savannah-Chatham County schools announced that a net of about 90 teaching positions would probably be cut for next year.

Younger teachers — those who often have the most enthusiasm, are quite literally the building blocks for the future workforce, and are less expensive to pay than older teachers — are especially at risk of job loss in Chatham County.

While that’s a worrisome trend in the Savannah area, other Georgia counties are in far worse shape. Elbert County has become the latest school system to opt for a 4-day week. That means 146 days of school for Elbert students. Elbert County has about 20,000 residents, but the population declined slightly from 2000 — it’s part of a cluster of counties in northeast Georgia that have seen population losses. Weakening the educational system seems unlikely to reverse that trend.

From the Augusta Chronicle:

The Elbert County School District will become the seventh school system in the state to set up four-day school weeks to save money. The system’s 2011-12 school year will include 146 days.

The board adopted a four-day week and several other cost-cutting measures to help offset a $4.8 million budget shortfall, schools Superintendent Abe Plummer said Friday.

“There have been a lot of austerity cuts from the state; we lost funding from (the federal Quality of Education Act allowance), and we’ve seen a decline in local revenue, among other budget reductions,” Plummer said. “We’ve been able for three years to cover these types of things by attrition, but that was not going to be the way to resolve them this year – we had to go with this and (cutting) personnel.”

The board eliminated 25 jobs in the district, a 4 percent cut in a system that employs 600 people, including bus drivers, Plummer said.

The board also added 10 unpaid furlough days to the school calendar to save about $900,000.

Job losses, salary cuts via unpaid furlough days, and 136 days of school: let’s see how that works out for Elbert’s future.

The grim reality is that education is the single biggest budget line for Georgia state government. Education has taken a huge hit from the state in recent years, and now it’s getting hit even harder by the winding down of federal spending designed to soften the blow of the recession and from the declines in property values (property taxes are obviously a key source of public schools’ local funding). It’s also worth noting that parents in small counties like Elbert have few choices; in Elbert, there is just one public middle school and one public high school.

The solutions — including more spending on education presumably through tax increases — are unpalatable to a majority of Georgians. But there’s only so much money to be saved from turning down thermostats and mowing the grass less often. Cuts we’ve seen in recent years will inevitably impact student performance, which will have lasting effects on the state’s economy, workforce, and general quality of life.

Meanwhile, Governor Deal has shown a willingness to issue bonds (i.e., go into debt) for major economic initiatives, like the $100-million-plus extension of a highway to the Georgia Ports in Savannah. That seems like a good investment to me, since port traffic is going to increase steadily for the next 20 years whether the harbor is deepened or not. (In fact, this plan to expand the highway before federal approval of dredging is a clear sign that the state’s leaders know that the Port of Savannah will thrive no matter what.)

I’d sure like to see some of the same energy and foresight go into funding education.

Click here for more posts about the Georgia state budget.