Although State School Superintendent John Barge has said that state revenues have improved over the last couple of months, officials with the Cherokee County School District already are working on prioritizing funds for the next budget cycle.
Cherokee County Superintendent Dr. Frank Petruzielo told members of the Board of Education during a work session on Thursday that, according to a survey conducted by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, 2 in 3 school systems responding have cut six school days from their calendars and 6 in 10 responding school systems have increased class size.
"I hope (state officials) begin to hear from students and parents about how this is affecting their educational experience," Petruzielo said.
The local school board heard from one student during its business session on Thursday night. Luke Sellars, Woodstock High School's senior class president, said he realized how different school is now when we was forced to drop to Advanced Placement classes because of cuts. And, increased class size is affecting students, Sellars said.
"To be one of 32 students in an AP literature class takes extreme patience," said Sellars, the son of two Cherokee County teachers. "You can't ask teachers to do more when they come in one-and-a-half hours before school starts, stay until 6 or 7 p.m., go home to eat a quick dinner and then work more until midnight. I see that in my parents."
Sellars also addressed the district's furlough days, telling board members that this school year's eight furlough days affects his family more than most because both of his parents are seeing their incomes cut. In fact, he said that his sister no longer attends Berry College in Rome because of his family's reduced income.
"You aren't taking away excess money," Sellars said. "You're taking pay away that is needed to get by. You're not just furloughing teachers. You're furloughing families in some cases."
Petruzielo said that state officials can't have it both ways.
"If you want a robust and vibrant economy then you have to educate the children in public schools, and you have to do it to a higher standard," he said.
State funding for the Cherokee County School District has dropped from 61 percent in 1996-1997 to 41 percent in 2010-2011, leaving the taxpayers to cover the bulk of the school system's operating budget.
"Everytime you look in the mirror, pat yourself on the back," Petruzielo said. "You are the one paying the bills."
In addition to decreased state funding, the school system is facing "skyrocketing" health insurance costs, something that Petruzielo said is almost a critical level for classified employees.
"Teachers will take more money out of their pockets to pay for health insurance for their children then they receive in step increases," the superintendent said. "It doesn't take a mathematician to figure out that if you take $1 out of one pocket and put 50 cents in another, you're 50 cents short."
For classified personnel, health insurance costs likely will double, and the increased costs have cost the Georgia World Congress Center to bow out of the state health insurance plan, Petruzielo said.
"This is the beginning of what's becoming a very serious problem," he said. "It used to be if you wanted great insurance at a low cost, you worked for a school system."
Priorities school board members mentioned include funding professional development and technology, and implemening Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Academies at the high school level.
"I know that will take time, but it has to be a priority," board member Kim Cochran said.
This year, the school system launched other STEM Academies this year at Ball Ground Elementary, Canton and Holly Springs elementary schools, and Fine Arts Academies at Hasty and Oak Grove elementary schools. Petruzielo said that the school system started with elementary schools because of limited funding on the front end, but a Technical High School Academy is slated for the current Teasley Middle School facility once that school moves into its new building and officials said they hope to eventually a High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.
"It's like a game of chicken (right now)," Petruzielo said. "When you get kids interested in this, you can't just say, 'Well, you're out of elementary school now. Time to go back to reading your literature books.'"