Increased school costs necessary to maintain ‘Fayette Advantage’

There has been a lot of discussion regarding the increasing cost of public education in Fayette County. Some have suggested the increasing budgets as a sign of wasteful spending that can easily be reduced. However, the facts suggest that these theories are incorrect.

Our school board has already made the difficult but wise decision to close four schools and reduce the net overall number of our Board of Education employees by 300 over the past five years. The cost of personnel, which is 89.16 percent of our overall school system budget, has increased substantially.

Looking back to 2014, which was the first full year after the BOE closed these schools, eliminated nearly all K-1 parapro support, and increased teacher to student ratios, the school system budget has increased approximately $41 million. While at the same time, we grew our reserves from nothing to $20.5 million at the end of the most recent fiscal year.

The elimination of K-1 parapro support and increasing class size to the much larger limits allowed by the state of Georgia eroded the “Fayette Advantage” we have maintained for so long here in Fayette County. Academic performance as measured by test score performance declined.

Over the past four years, our board has added $15.5 million back to the budget to restore most of these cuts. We still have larger student to teacher ratios across many schools and grades, but not the even larger ratios used by other lower performing systems.

Next, 575 or almost 32 percent of our teachers have 20 or more years of experience. In addition, nearly 77 percent of Fayette’s teachers have a higher-level certification. Together, this experience and qualification has contributed to the performance of our wonderful children and their excellent schools.

However, this also means that we have teachers on the higher end and levels of the state teacher pay scale. Step increases together with cost of living adjustments have resulted in about $11 million in higher salary costs over the past four years. In addition, our governor declared a 2 percent teacher cost of living increase which is included above, and mostly funded by the state.

It has been determined that the state of Georgia has not been properly funding our teacher’s pension plan due to rather optimistic assumptions in the past. While reasonable people can criticize these assumptions, school systems across Georgia are left paying the bill. In 2018, we will pay an additional nearly $7 million and indications are that the catch up in 2019 will be even higher.

Last, as we all know from both our own experience and the various news outlets, healthcare costs have grown at a tremendous rate. While our school system has passed a large share of these costs to our employees, it has absorbed almost $3 million in additional premium costs over this four-year period.

As I have stated before, our schools have maintained per student costs near the state average over the years, while our students, teachers, and administrators have delivered “Top 10” results.

While the budget has increased and the total is larger than ever before, the analysis above shows that these costs are in line with average spending and are necessary to maintain our excellent Fayette County Public Schools.

Neil Sullivan

Peachtree City, Ga.