Representatives of Newton County in the Georgia General Assembly attended the Newton County Board of Education meeting Tuesday night to hear what board members felt were the most pressing legislative issues regarding education in the state next year.
State representatives Doug Holt (R-District 112) and John Lunsford (R-District 110) and state Senator John Douglas (R-District 17) attended the meeting to hear the board's concerns.
"This meeting and the invitation of our legislators has been a long tradition here in Newton County," said Steve Whatley, NCSS superintendent.
Government officials have met with school board members at sit-down breakfasts, dinners and other gatherings since before Douglas chaired the board.
Most of the board's concerns dealt with funding.
"You may not be aware of this, but 57 percent of our budget comes from the state," Whatley said.
Douglas, Holt and Lunsford also met with members of the Newton County Chamber of Commerce at a breakfast legislative forum last week.
"As mentioned in the legislative forum," Whatley said, "water is an issue, transportation is an issue, education is always an issue and healthcare is another issue, and we know we are all fighting for a piece of the pie."
Whatley presented 10 points to the legislators.
The first dealt with the board's support of comprehensive analysis to determine appropriate revisions to Georgia's revenue and tax structure.
Georgia Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson's resolution 900 was discussed. HR 900 is also known as the GREAT Plan - which stands for Georgia's Repeal of Every Ad Valorem Tax.
"It's getting more interesting because it's getting more focused," Holt said.
Lunsford said the bill is narrowing to increase homestead tax exemptions and eliminate automobile "birthday taxes" as well as repeal exemptions on 127 categories of items such as Maine lobster.
"In all honesty it's a shift of the tax burden onto more of the public than just home and car owners," Lunsford said.
Whatley said the board did not support the unfair shifting of the tax burden to the local school district or shifting the tax burden from one group of taxpayers to another group of taxpayers.
"If it is any consolation to board members, it started because the speaker was concerned we didn't properly fund school systems in the state," Lunsford said. "I want you to know that we're not taking money from you."
Whatley said before any tax revision was enacted, local impact needed to be thoroughly researched and publicized.
"I want to make sure, if we pass something, that it doesn't do our school systems damage," Holt agreed.
The Governor's Education Finance Task Force's Investing in Education Excellence (IE²) was also discussed.
The program seeks to have committees examine cost models of different plans and review the current Quality Basic Education state funding formula.
"If IE² becomes a reality, then hopefully it would take care of some of these things," Whatley said. "The issue still is where does the revenue come from to fund this?"
Holt said he believes IE² will adequately address funding issues and alternatives.
Whatley continued the presentation by stating the board supported QBE funding without austerity reductions (formula adjustments).
Newton County schools have lost $11.4 million of anticipated state funding through austerity reductions since fiscal year 2003 - all school systems throughout Georgia have lost $1.3 billion because of formula adjustments.
Reductions in 2005 were the largest for Newton County, totaling 143 percent of 1 mill.
"Austerity reductions that we have had to bear, as other agencies have had to bear," Whatley said, "have hurt the school system."
The board's third request was to restore system flexibility by restoring the system average maximum class size.
NCSS recently had to apply for class size waivers across all grade levels.
"Everyone agrees that we should lower the class size and that's wonderful and we want to do that," Whatley said.
He said it was highly disruptive to students when one student more than the state-mandated maximum class size enters a grade level and a waiver can not be obtained since the class has to be divided and a new teacher has to be hired.
Lunsford said he had no idea why the state determined things like class size in every city and county in Georgia.
"Many of us have never been to those cities or could identify them on a map," Lunsford said.
"That to me is ludicrous," Douglas said.
The fourth point presented recommended commitment to fund construction in exceptional growth at the $100 million level and capital outlay for school construction at $200 million or higher.
"In a rapidly growing system that needs new buildings this becomes extremely important to us," Whatley said.
He added 40 percent of funding for capital outlay comes from the state, but only pays for brick and mortar. The system must pay for land, equipment and furnishings.
Whatley encouraged the government delegates to pass legislation that would provide initial funding for equipment and furnishings in the capital outlay formula.
Newton County schools employ 155 trailers as instructional spaces.
Whatley also addressed employee benefits and salaries as well as funding for classroom materials and resources.
Systems earn $150 per teacher for sick leave, yet the system has to pay substitutes at least $55 a day. Those funds are expended in less than three days, but teachers have 12.5 days of sick leave per year.
Also, since the lottery-funded "Computers for the Classrooms" program ended in 2003, local taxpayers have had the sole burden of keeping up with ever-changing technology.
Whatley said the board would like state funding for facility maintenance and operations to cover the continually increasing local costs.
The QBE formula for fiscal year 2003 provided $298 per student. The state average expenditure in 2006 for maintenance and operation was more than $621 per student.
Another suggestion the board made was for the state to sell bonds for the purchase of school buses.
Whatley said the board also supported adding money to the state formula for adding more days for professional learning and planning.
"We support performance-based instruction of students," Whatley said, "yet we have to write the curriculum and pull the teachers out of class to train them."
The board also wants legislation passed allowing retirees from the Teacher Retirement System to be able to continue employment in public schools without penalty.
Currently the option is only available to those who retired before Dec. 31, 2003.
"That adds to the pool especially when there is a shortage of teachers," Whatley said.
Finally, the board encouraged the passage of legislation eliminating the requirement for concurrent resolutions concerning imposing, levying, collecting and distributing proceeds from sales taxes for system use by all school districts within a county.
Newton County recently had to enter into an agreement with Social Circle City Schools regarding providing funds for Social Circle students who lived in Newton County.
"There are several systems in the state that are in that situation and it needs to be corrected," said Cathy Dobbs, NCSS board member.
Whatley concluded by offering his time to any of the legislators to answer any of their questions and then gave them a few moments to respond.
"I think we need the wisdom of Solomon to figure out the answers to the questions you raised here," Douglas said.
Douglas added he supported using budget surpluses in times of a strong economy to bail out ailing entities such as education and health care. Lunsford said any budget surplus would likely be used for tax relief.
"I commend you for the work you've done on this - you did a good job," Lunsford said to the board. "With that being said, I wish we could write you a check - we just don't have the money."