The Barrow County School System was awarded $2.35 million in emergency federal aid Tuesday in response to the coronavirus pandemic, money that should soften at least some of the blow from the crisis. But it’s not clear how much it will help offset the impact of anticipated steep cuts to the upcoming state budget.
The Georgia Department of Education announced Monday that it had accepted roughly $457.2 million in funding from the CARES Act, which was passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in March. Of that amount, the department plans to keep 10 percent for reserves — in the event of future costs associated with the pandemic arising — and another half a percent for administering the grant. The remaining $411 million was distributed to the 180 public school districts around the state, using the department’s formula for federal Title I allocations, meaning districts with larger populations of low-income students will get more money.
Districts can use the relief money for any costs associated with the pandemic since March 13 — including serving school meals; distance/remote learning; cleaning and disinfecting of facilities and personal protective equipment; mental and physical health services; professional development; and activities and programs geared toward various at-risk student populations.
The money can also be used to offset teacher layoffs, furloughs and salary reductions, though it likely will not be enough to fully absorb pending state cuts.
On Friday, May 1, all state agencies were told by a pair of state legislators and an official from Gov. Brian Kemp’s budget office that they should expect to slash 14 percent from their Fiscal Year 2021 budgets with no exceptions as a result of the vicious economic hit the state has taken from the pandemic. That would mean a reduction of more than $3.5 billion to the overall state budget and an estimated $1.6 billion in the state education budget, DOE officials said.
The DOE had been spared in previous cuts passed by the legislature during Kemp’s tenure, but that would not be the case this time if the across-the-board cuts are approved by the General Assembly and signed by Kemp.
Rep. Terry England (R-Auburn), who chairs the House Appropriations Committee and represents most of Barrow County in the 116th District, co-authored the memo along with Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Blake Tillery (R-Vidalia) and Kelly Farr, the director of the governor’s budget office.
“We find ourselves in unprecedented times,” the three wrote. “While the Great Recession of 2008 was considered then to be a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ event, our current situation will certainly overshadow it.”
Barrow County schools superintendent Chris McMichael said he received the letter Friday morning and that it was too soon to tell where the cuts will be felt but that “they will be felt.”
Last week, Jennifer Houston, assistant superintendent for business services, told the Barrow County school board that the system would be late adopting a budget for FY2021 because it was not expecting to find how much state funding it will receive until June, three months later than normal due to the pandemic. The board will have to adopt a spending resolution for July in order to continue operating and likely another one in August, Houston said.
The district received about $89 million in state funding for the current fiscal year, and the budget passed last year and currently has around $13 million in its reserves, which the school board could opt to tap into in order to offset more of the pending cuts. The board did not discuss the cuts or the federal relief money at its Tuesday night meeting.
McMichael said district officials had been working on budget scenarios that assumed state cuts, but nothing as high as 14 percent.
“This is going to be a steep challenge for the system to climb,” McMichael said. “We will do everything we can to avoid furloughs and layoffs without sacrificing the quality of our educational offerings for our students.”