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Governor focuses on education
Plan offers discretion in spending
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News that Gov. Nathan Deal has pledged to restore more than $500 million in education funding cut in recent years is a relief to local school officials.

"I am the most optimistic that I have been in my five years as superintendent regarding the budget," said Dawson County School Superintendent Keith Porter. "We have been hoping for positive news regarding funding from the state, and it appears to be happening."

Deal made the proposal, which represents the largest single year increase in kindergarten-12th grade funding in seven years, during his State of the State address Jan. 15 at the Capitol in Atlanta.

In Deal's proposed budget, the $8 billion set aside for education includes a $547 million increase, with $314 million of that for local schools to decide how to use.

The governor said his intent is to give local school systems the means to eliminate furlough days for staff and reinstate instructional days for students.

"These funds will provide our local school systems with the resources and flexibility to address the most critical needs of their students and teachers," Deal said.

Currently, the Dawson County school employees have between five to six furlough days depending on their classification, while the calendar for students is 178 days, down from 180 two years ago, according to Porter.

"Our goal is to get a full student calendar back as quick as possible. What we're waiting on now is to see when we can include the funds in our budget," he said.

Deal's proposal must clear both houses of the General Assembly and could be tweaked, though members of the local state legislative delegation have said they believe in it.

Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, is confident the House of Representatives will support the governor's plan.

"Being on the education committee, we had listening sessions throughout the state ... the No. 1 thing that we heard from them was to replace the austerity cuts," he said. "It's been cut because the lack of revenue, so they want those restored if possible and then allow the local school districts to decide how that money would be used."

Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, said he would be surprised if any school board uses the funding increase for anything other than reinstating days.

"This is going to give the school boards local control to decide how they want to use that money ... and I hope the first thing they'll do is eliminate the furlough days," he said.

While the reaction from state and local officials has been positive, others say there is still "a long way to go to restore funding."

A former teacher who has remained vocal on educational issues, Bette Holland, said Monday the $700 million in austerity cuts in the funding formula will continue to be an issue.

"That means that schools will still see larger class sizes, no new textbooks, cuts in supplies for the classroom, fewer elective courses, and less funding for professional development," she said.

Holland also said the governor has made the "funding increase political" and is "pitting teachers against the school boards in the hopes that the citizens of the state will blame the local school boards if we don't restore school days and the teachers will blame the local school boards if they don't get a pay raise."

"The $314 million can be used for furloughs and additional school days or the funds can be used for teacher salaries," she said. "There isn't enough money ... to do both."