Cherokee County Budget Cuts

By Megan R.

Staff Writer

In the early 2000’s, the U.S economy took a turn for the worst. Since then it has exponentially declined, recently reaching a plateau. The unemployment rate has risen 2.3%, leaving 11.3 million people in the hands of the welfare system or on the streets. As of October 17th, the national debt was $17.075 trillion. Countless changes have been made in attempts to salvage the U.S economy.  This depression has affected everyone, especially the schools. Funding for education now parallels the shrinking budget of the federal government. After years of relentlessly fighting to stay afloat in a sea of financial burdens, the Cherokee County School District (CCSD) was finally anticipating a break. The state government had allotted $400 million to cover the cost of insuring part-time employees in the face of the State Health Benefit Plan. Yet, right before the end of last school year, the state retracted those funds, leaving schools and their employees high and dry to face the skyrocketing premiums. As a result, the district was forced to privatize their custodians and grounds workers in order for them to keep insurance benefits. Privatization means that those employees now work under a different company at the schools. The constant lack of appropriate funding for schools in Georgia has existed for several years, and this decision was just the icing on the cake.

The cause of privatization was the school district’s budget, or lack thereof. Funding for education is derived from the three levels of government. Each level contributes a certain percentage to the budget of individual school districts: federal (roughly 6%), state (roughly 50%) and local (roughly 44%). Federal funding is based on the number of students who qualify as special education, English language learners or as living in poverty.  Federal money usually goes directly to the districts; however, some of it is distributed through the state. State funding is calculated using the Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula. This formula takes into account direct and indirect instructional costs, categorical grants and equalization. For this school year, Georgia districts received $1.05 billion less than QBE mandates. Local fubudgetnding is raised through property taxes and is included in the QBE formula; Cherokee County raised $5.9 billion in local tax digest revenue.

Since each level contributes to the budget, financial issues on one level can greatly affect the local schools.  Although the federal government’s contribution to the budget seems miniscule in the big picture, other decisions made on Capitol Hill can result in major cuts. In early 2008, America’s economy began a steady decline towards rock bottom. The national debt increased by six trillion dollars, and the unemployment rate rose 2.3%.  The Budget Control Act of 2011 allowed President Obama to greatly reduce funding for the 15 cabinet agencies, including the Department of Education. Furthermore, decreases in federal funding along with massive austerity cuts (federally mandated cutbacks in local and government funding in an attempt to fix the indebted economy) have slashed the budget of state governments. The State Health Benefit Plan has led to rearrangement of funds mostly in the lower two levels.  In an interview with the Cherokee Ledger, Dr. Frank Petruzielo, superintendent, states, “The decision regarding outsourcing custodians was made because the state opted to withdraw the full $400 million it had formerly committed to paying a portion of classified employees’ health benefits at a time when State Health Benefit Plan premiums were skyrocketing.”

Since 2007 the State austerity cuts have increased by nearly 700%.  Austerity cuts are not, in essence, a bad thing; decreasing spending and holding back funds until balance is restored could potentially work. The issue arises, however, when the federal government slashes funding and then requires the same people to pay ridiculous amounts of money to stay open. The State Health Benefit Plan forces employers with a certain amount of full-time and part-time workers to pay premiums to insure these employees. From CEO’s of major corporations to small business owners to schools, this new act has proved more harmful than affordable.

The Cherokee County School District is facing this problem now. In the next two years, the price of insuring non-certified employees, such as custodians and grounds workers, alone was predicted to nearly triple to $12.7 million. “It bothers me that education is taking a backseat to Obamacare,” states junior Leigha Woodard. This figure does not include the federal requirement for employers to cover all full-time, certified employees under the State Health Benefit Plan.  This, combined with all of the cuts made over the past few years was a main cause of the outsourcing of custodians. The contract between CCSD and Aramark, the company that now employs the custodians, is projected to save the district $3.7 million this year, which barely covers the effects of SHBP or QBE loss.  “We simply can’t afford to pay that kind of money for participation in State Health Benefit Plan for all our non-certified employees,” says Dr.  Petruzielo. Even with the privatization of the custodians, the district is suffering.

The economic crisis has affected everyone. Though recovery attempts have been made, few have proven successful. Taxes are rising, but funding for education has not been improved. Obamacare has surely had a negative effect, but had the state not withdrawn funds, the custodians might still be working for the county. The State has done very little to actually improve education in Georgia. “The State legislature does not seem to be pro-education. I think that is a fair statement,” says Dr. Paul Weir, principal. Cherokee County can no longer handle this burden on its own.

 

 

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