WASHINGTON — Financially strapped Georgia school systems soon will see some relief as the Obama administration works to channel $44 billion, the first portion of money from the economic stimulus package, to the nation's school districts.
"It's critical the money go out quickly, but it's even more important this money be spent wisely," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Wednesday.
Those funds could provide timely relief for middle Georgia school systems, which are cutting dozens of teachers for the fall and are currently implementing pay cuts and furloughs.
This year, the state anticipates a $235 million cut in state funding to schools, officials with the Georgia Department of Education said Tuesday. Even though state officials will use a more than $600 million infusion of funds designed to shore up Georgia's budget in 2010 and 2011, the state still anticipates needing to cut the education budget by at least 3 percent next year.
In the meantime, districts like the Crawford County school system in Roberta, Ga., are trying to compensate by proposing an across-the-board 2 percent pay cut for all 300 employees, including teachers, and eliminating 19 positions.
Bibb County and Houston County school systems are eliminating summer school remediation and opting to tutor students in May. The Bibb school system is furloughing 556 employees, though not teachers or low-paid employees, for four to five days this school year.
Roughly 9 percent of the nation's teachers may face layoffs because of state budgetary cuts. The Obama administration hopes stimulus funds will help save some of those jobs.
Local school officials are dubious.
Some worry that unclear guidance on spending stimulus money could result in delays and costly penalties down the road.
"You get a mixed message about saving jobs, but you can't use it to save jobs," said Bibb County Schools Superintendent Sharon Patterson. "Without the ability to pay salaries out of this year's budget, I can't see it."
Patterson's frustration stems in part from confusion on federal guidelines for spending Title 1 money -- funds for districts that have a high percentage of low-income students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches -- and funding for students with disabilities. In order to ensure that funding for the nation's neediest students was left intact, Congress passed guidelines requiring that money for those programs go directly to the districts.
Districts can expect much of this funding in the next few weeks.
Over the next two years, the Bibb County school district will receive $11.8 million in Title 1 funds and $6.1 million under Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for students with disabilities, according to congressional estimates. The Houston County school district is poised to net $3.9 million in Title 1 funds and $4.3 million in IDEA funds.
In Bibb County, which has roughly 25,000 students, 1,300 are considered students with disabilities, Patterson said.
"We've only received guidance on Title 1, but no guidance on IDEA," she said. "The state says one thing and the U.S. Department of Education says another."
The Department of Education is urging districts to be innovative in how they use funds and consider additional teacher training or boosting technology in schools. However, when "making payroll every month is the biggest challenge" it's hard to think creatively or justify other expenses, Patterson said.
"The stimulus money is a chimeral issue," said W. Norton Grubb, director of a principal training program at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of "The Money Myth: School Resources, Outcomes and Equity."
"On the one hand, everyone is happy to get new money," he said in an interview. "Getting money and spending that money well aren't necessarily consistent with each other."
(Julie Hubbard of the Macon Telegraph contributed.)
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