Georgia schools budget adopted with $950 million in cuts

Georgia school officials adopted a budget for the upcoming school year Tuesday that cuts roughly $950 million in funds for basic classroom education due to economic pains from the coronavirus pandemic.

The 2021 fiscal year budget has also been trimmed to reduce funds for career training, grants for special-needs students and state contributions to the teachers’ pension fund.

Rusk Roam, the state Department of Education’s chief financial officer, noted the budget cuts were tough but not quite as dire as initially expected. He added the state will be able to fully fund $726 million for financially struggling schools.

“To say the least, this has been a long, challenging road to get here,” Roam said during a state Board of Education meeting on Tuesday.

Local school districts will be left to determine how to swallow cuts for their schools in terms of whether to furlough teachers or reduce the number of classroom days for the 2020-21 school year.

Teacher salaries will not change despite the budget cuts, officials said Tuesday.

School funding has been propped up by roughly $457 million in funds from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Among a host of cuts, the $11.7 billion Georgia schools budget trims about $6.1 million in grant funding for students with autism and severe emotional behavioral challenges, $2 million in grants for career and agricultural education, and $700,000 earmarked for feminine hygiene products.

It also reduces the employer share of the Teachers Retirement System from about 21% to 19%.

Additionally, the state board moved Tuesday to spend $4 million on purchasing electronic devices for online learning and to pump an additional $1.2 million into a state-run virtual school program to hire 100 teachers for online classes.

Georgia’s roughly 1.7 million students shifted to virtual learning as in-person classes closed across the state in late March due to the pandemic. Officials expect to see a mix of virtual and in-person classes for the upcoming year, depending on each district’s ability to resume relatively normal operations.

Up in the air is whether Georgia will be able to pocket roughly $7.5 million budgeted for preparing year-end tests. State officials have asked the federal government to waive administering the Georgia Milestones assessments and other reporting requirements for the 2020-21 school year.

The state school budget poised to take effect Wednesday was set last week by the General Assembly, which approved about $2.2 billion in cuts to state agencies. Gov. Brian Kemp signed the 2021 fiscal year budget Tuesday morning.

Gov. Kemp signs state budget scaled back by COVID-19

Gov. Brian Kemp

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp signed a $25.9 billion state budget Tuesday that he called “bittersweet” because of $2.2 billion in spending cuts brought on by the devastation the coronavirus pandemic is wreaking on Georgia’s economy.

“This budget reflects our values as a state. It prioritizes education, health care and public safety,” Kemp said during a signing ceremony at his Capitol office. “But this budget speaks to some of the hard choices made by state leaders.”

Despite 10% across-the-board reductions to state agency budgets, Kemp stressed that he and legislative budget writers still were able to fully fund K-12 student enrollment growth as well as projected growth in Georgia’s Medicaid and PeachCare for Kids programs.

Tapping into the state’s general-fund budget reserves for $250 million along with $50 million from Georgia’s share of the national tobacco settlement helped avoid the furlough days that had been looming over teachers and state employees.

In the public safety arena, the budget includes funds to expand the Georgia Bureau of investigation’s Gang Task Force and provide a 50-trooper training school.

Kemp also highlighted the $1.13 billion bond package as an economic development opportunity. It includes $335 million for K-12 school construction, $340 million to repair and renovate state-owned buildings and $115 million to repair, renovate and – in some cases – replace roads and bridges.

“This bond package was designed with projects for every part of our state, to help Georgia regain its competitive advantage,” the governor said.

However, the budget still cuts K-12 education by $950 million, while teachers and state employees must do without the 2% raises Kemp had included in his original budget recommendations, before COVID-19 prompted shelter-in-place orders that closed businesses, laid off workers and sent state tax collections plummeting.

Legislative Democrats, most of whom voted against the budget, took majority Republicans to task for not allowing revenue raising proposals – including a tobacco tax increase and legislation reining in state tax credits – to reach the floor of either the House or Senate for a vote.

Kemp was flanked throughout Tuesday’s signing ceremony by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, and his Senate counterpart, Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia.

The governor bumped fists with both men after signing the budget, which takes effect on Wednesday.

Should Georgia nix year-end school tests amid COVID-19? Online survey launched

State school officials are asking Georgians to chime in on whether students should have to take year-end tests during the upcoming school year amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Georgia Department of Education has launched an online survey to collect feedback on whether the state should be granted a waiver from the federal government to skip the Georgia Milestones and other reporting requirements for the 2020-21 school year.

The survey is open to anyone in Georgia to fill out including parents, teachers, students and others. It is required as part of the state’s waiver request to the U.S. Department of Education.

Per the waiver, the state is also seeking a pass on accountability requirements including the annual report card and the College and Career Readiness Index.

The survey is open for submissions through next Friday (July 10).

  • A link to the survey is here.

School officials say resuming the tests would both complicate classroom learning already challenged by social distancing restrictions and hurt the budgetary bottom line for local schools as districts grapple with $950 million in spending cuts statewide.

“In anticipation of a return to in-person instruction this fall, we believe schools’ focus should be on remediation, growth, and the safety of students,” said State School Superintendent Richard Woods. “Every dollar spent on high-stakes testing would be a dollar taken away from the classroom.”

Standardized tests were suspended for the 2019-20 school year as in-person classes closed across the state and Georgia’s roughly 1.7 million students switched to online learning.

Local school officials were handed guidelines earlier this month on how to safely reopen classes in the fall, with plans outlining steps schools should take to prevent the highly infectious virus from entering classroom environments and to curb its spread if an outbreak occurs.

Gov. Brian Kemp directed school officials Monday to draw up safe reopening rules for local school districts eyeing ways to resume in-person classes for the upcoming school year.

Anyone interested in taking the survey may do so at

Hawks offer up State Farm Arena for early voting

ATLANTA – The Atlanta Hawks have found an innovative, community-minded way to use State Farm Arena while the coronavirus pandemic has left the building without its usual slate of concerts and sporting events.

The Hawks and Fulton County have announced plans to use the facility in downtown Atlanta as an early voting site. With 700,000-thousand square feet of space, there’s plenty of room to comply with the social distancing requirements that hampered voting before and during the June 9 primaries.

“We always felt we were a community and civic asset,” Hawks owner Tony Ressler said Monday. “Making State Farm Arena the safest, most efficient and largest polling location in Georgia and maybe the country is part of that commitment.”

“We will go from the proverbial worst to first as a result of this collaboration,” Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts added.

The area will open July 20 for early voting ahead of the Aug. 11 runoffs and in October in advance of the Nov. 3 general election. A portion of the building also will be set aside for counting mail-in-ballots.

In conjunction with Monday’s announcement, MARTA unveiled plans to reopen its rail station adjacent to State Farm Arena, which has been closed since the COVID-19 outbreak began because of the cancellation of events at the arena and nearby Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The station has undergone a deep cleaning and needed repairs during the last three months.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger praised the Hawks and Fulton County for stepping up to improve the voting experience after the long lines and other problems that beset Atlanta during the primary voting.

“The partnership between Fulton County and the Atlanta Hawks is a great example of how the public sector and the private sector can work together to address the issues we saw on June 9,” he said. “Looking forward, we are hoping to build more of these partnerships with the private sector and civic groups to support voter access during this unprecedented pandemic.”

Kemp extends COVID-19 social distancing rules

Coronavirus has sickened tens of thousands and killed thousands more in Georgia. (Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Gov. Brian Kemp moved Monday to extend social distancing rules for businesses and stay-at-home orders for the state’s most vulnerable populations another two weeks amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The governor also plans to extend the state’s public health emergency until Aug. 11, granting him more than a month to continue tapping into broad powers that allow him to issue executive orders.

The extended orders announced Monday ban gatherings of more than 50 people unless there is at least six feet of distance between them and require restaurants, bars and other businesses to keep their establishments routinely sanitized.

Georgians in long-term elderly care facilities and those with chronic health conditions will need to remain sheltered in place through July 15.

The governor also directed state education officials to draw up safe reopening rules for local school districts eyeing ways to resume in-person classes for the upcoming school year.

On Monday, Kemp acknowledged state health officials have seen an increase in positive cases and hospitalizations due to coronavirus in recent days, prompting him to order extensions of current social distancing rules.

“As we continue our fight against COVID-19 in Georgia, it is vital that Georgians continue to heed public health guidance by wearing a mask, washing their hands regularly and practicing social distancing,” the governor said late Monday.

“We have made decisions throughout the pandemic to protect the lives – and livelihoods – of all Georgians by relying on data and the advice of public health officials.”

Kemp has steadily eased up on social distancing requirements for Georgia businesses and other gathering spots since ending the state’s mandatory stay-at-home order at the end of April.

Since then, restaurants, bars and other social hotspots have been allowed to reopen with gradually loosened restrictions on occupancy limits and distancing rules.

The distancing extensions announced Monday come as positive coronavirus cases have ticked up in recent weeks following the Memorial Day holiday period late last month, according to data from the state Department of Public Health.

As of Monday afternoon, more than 79,000 people had tested positive in Georgia for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel strain of coronavirus that sparked a global pandemic. The virus had killed 2,784 Georgians.

So far, Kemp has resisted pressure to impose a statewide mask mandate in Georgia as several states including New York, California and Kentucky have recently required residents to wear facial coverings in public.

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson has signaled he may place the city under a mask-wearing requirement as positive cases continue climbing.

The governor’s office insisted Monday the number of people dying from coronavirus remains low in Georgia while local outbreaks appear to be clustered in workplace settings, houses of worship and social gatherings.

Kemp is poised to embark on a five-city tour across the state this week to urge Georgians to wear masks and keep their distance from each other ahead of the upcoming July 4th holiday weekend.

The governor’s office also announced bulk shipments of face masks are being sent to local governments and schools in around three dozen counties.

Kemp also plans to hold a conference call Tuesday with school officials on how to distribute 2 million masks to local schools before students return for classes in the coming months.

Additionally, the governor circulated guidance Monday on how city and county governments hit hard by the pandemic can tap into roughly $1.2 billion remaining in federal coronavirus aid.

About $1.8 billion in funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) has already been sent to five metro-Atlanta governments, according to Kemp’s office.