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Ga. Lawmakers Focus on Budget Flexibility for Schools

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As the legislative session winds to a close, Georgia lawmakers have stalled more controversial pieces of education legislation in favor of giving some financial flexibility to cash-strapped schools.

A bill that would have expanded the state's school voucher program for special needs students to include children from military families and in foster care never made it past the Senate. Gov. Sonny Perdue's bill that would have created a merit pay system for teachers based on student achievement died in committee. And legislation to crack down on school bullies has only cleared the House.

Instead, lawmakers chose to focus on a package of bills that grant waivers to school districts through 2013 for many state spending controls and other policies, like class size limits.

"We felt that until 2013, we needed to give them flexibility over their money and not tell them where to spend it," said state House Education Committee Chairman Brooks Coleman. "Let's suppose a school is doing fine, but they need more money in second grade than in first grade or they need to spend more for technology than library books. This gives them that freedom."

The state is trudging through one of the worst fiscal crises in its history, struggling to close a $785 million budget gap for the fiscal year that begins July 1. That's after cutting more than $1 billion in state spending from this year's budget because of fifteen months of plunging tax collections.

School districts have been laying off teachers and other school workers, enacting furlough days for employees, and cutting programs and field trips to cope with the drastic budget reductions. And next year likely will be even tougher because the state won't have federal stimulus money to fill gaping holes in the budget.

Some observers estimate up to 10,000 education employees — from teachers to bus drivers and cafeteria workers — could lose their jobs in the next year.

"We have reached financial Armageddon in regards to education," said Jeff Hubbard, president of the Georgia Association of Educators. "The skeleton of money has been picked clean."

For now, lawmakers are hoping to give some relief to districts.

State policies require schools to spend 65 percent of their budgets on classroom instruction and to keep classes to less than about 30 students, depending on the grade and subject. Both those measures would be relaxed under proposals being considered by lawmakers, leaving it up to school districts to decide how to spend their limited funding.

also get an extra month to sign contracts with teachers and administrators. Moving the April 15 deadline to May 15 gives districts a chance to see what their budgets will be before deciding on personnel for the next school year.

Another bill would allow districts to use transportation money to refurbish old school buses rather than buy new ones, which could save thousands of dollars.

The state's K-12 system isn't the only level to be hit hard by the fiscal crisis.

Colleges expect to have their state funding cut by hundreds of millions, which likely will lead to layoffs, steep tuition hikes and program cuts. Lawmakers had threatened to slash up to $600 million from the state's 35 public colleges and universities but have since backed off that figure after admonishment from Perdue.

The budget talks were met with rallies from college students from across the state upset over the possible cuts. They held signs saying "What about our future?" and "Are you nuts? No budget cuts!"

One bright spot for colleges: Poor students wanting to attend college in Georgia could get some relief under a bill that creates a need-based scholarship. The program won't cost the state anything because it will be funded by up to $30 million from the Georgia Lottery.

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