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Institute names Clayton among Georgia’s neediest, cash-strapped districts

JONESBORO — A report released by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute lists Clayton County Public Schools among the districts who can least afford continued state funding cuts.

Clayton ranks No. 5 on a list of districts with the largest cumulative cuts since 2003, based on Georgia’s Quality Basic Education funding formula. Its state funding has been cut $233 million since that time, and is being cut by $32 million this year.

The district also has the state’s eighth largest percentage decline in tax digest, at 30 percent between 2008 and 2012, according to the report.

It prompted the school board to push for the highest taxable rates on properties in July, when it approved a maximum 20-mill fiscal year 2014 property tax. The report named only 10 other districts with millage rates that are that high or higher.

Chief Finance Officer Ken Thompson expects a projected $107.8 million in property tax revenues this year to be added to the general fund budget, set at $351.9 million.

“While the rate of decline in property value has slowed down, we are still anticipating less local revenue in the short term,” he said.

Thompson said this year’s budget also accounts for a one-time 1-percent bonus for district employees.

He said the bonus is the first pay raise for district employees in five years. However, it was made possible, in part, because the district received an $8.8 million increase in equalization grant funding.

Business Services Director Lonita Collier said the grant is given proportionately to “financially underprivileged” districts with depressed tax digests and growing student populations. She said the district received roughly $36 million through the state’s equalization grant program to help fill in the gaps created by declines in local revenues.

It means that, thanks to a confluence of circumstances this year, grant funding will be about $4 million more than the district’s anticipated state funding cuts. It leaves the district better off than in years past, Collier said.

Claire Suggs is the institute’s senior education policy analyst and author of the report, which states the number of low-income students has grown by 15 percent over the past decade in Georgia. She said 70 of the state’s nearly 200 school districts saw the number of students eligible for free and reduced-price meals increase by at least 15 percent in 10 years.

The report notes about 86 percent of Clayton’s student body is eligible, putting the district 12th among those districts with the highest percentage of low-income students.

Thompson said the district has had to make concessions over the years in order to meet its funding challenges.

The board reduced its workforce in fiscal years 2010 through 2012, applied for state waivers to increase class sizes in order to cut down on personnel costs and reduced instruction days from 180 to 175.

“While our projections reflect that we will be solvent for at least the next couple of years, school districts cannot continue to survive on fund balance alone,” Thompson said. “The district continues to be judicious with any new spending and we strive to keep any cuts from impacting the classroom as much as possible.”