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Payne’s students experiment with gizmos and gadgets to create their own projects, like this “cat entertainer” that powers a fan to blow pieces of string. A schoolwide computer science teacher position in the FY17 budget will help expand the makerspace program in Georgia. (Photo by Abby Ledoux)

NOTE: This story continues to be edited as the legislature takes action on Act 46 spending caps and was last updated on February 1.

The Georgia School Board unanimously approved a $13.2 million fiscal year 2017 budget last week after what Franklin West Supervisory Union Superintendent Ned Kirsch called the “most difficult budgeting year ever.”

The proposal represents a 2.38 percent budget increase over last year and a 3.5 percent increase in per equalized pupil spending.

The latter figure is what the state instructed schools to focus on, and it’s about .8 percent higher than Georgia’s original allowable growth percentage determined by Act 46.

The landmark legislation law is perhaps best known for requiring school mergers, but it also
limits schools’ spending per equalized pupil over the next fiscal year.

In FY16, Georgia’s $12,862 per pupil spending was $1,233 below the state average. Before it was recently amended by the legislature, Act 46 capped Georgia’s FY17 per pupil spending at $13,232, a 2.71 percent increase.

The new budget exceeds that threshold by about $115, which Act 46 originally stipulated would be double taxed – a penalty that would add about a penny to the tax rate, FWSU business manager Chris Sumner said.

An Agency of Education calculation error sent the provision’s fate back to the legislature, where lawmakers were still debating to modify or remove the caps entirely at press time Tuesday, Jan. 26.

With crucial numbers still in flux, school boards were left “operating in the dark” as they struggled to approve budgets for Town Meeting Day ballots, Kirsch said.

The Senate voted to repeal the caps last week, which House Republicans contend fails to hold overspending districts accountable. On Wednesday, the House approved amendments including imposing a lesser tax penalty, a provision to hold districts harmless for the AOE error and a .9 percent threshold increase.

The final tweak, approved 92-32 this weekend, maintains the .9 percent increase and exempts districts spending less than $14,095 per pupil from the caps altogether. Penalties for non-complying districts will be less than the original provision, which double taxed them, but higher than the 25 percent compromise some legislators hoped for: Now, districts will face a penalty of 40 percent for every dollar spent past the thresholds.

Next year, districts won’t be subject to spending caps at all – the legislature removed the cost containment provision for FY18.

Following Montpelier’s adjustment, Georgia will face no penalties for its $13.2M budget, and taxpayers will see a 3.6-cent tax rate increase, Sumner said. Owners of $250,000 homes will see a $90 increase on their tax bills.

Sumner also emphasized Georgia’s common level of appraisal changed from 105.41 percent last year to 102.69 percent this year, carrying a tax rate impact of 3.4 cents – this would raise taxes even if the board approved a level budget, she explained.

The predicted .9 percent increase led to several additions in Georgia’s budget, as Kirsch cautioned board members under-spending would leave them “up the creek” next year when the state determined FY18 allowable growth.

The additions included two new staff positions. The first, a .8 FTE elementary literacy specialist, would provide support for overburdened second grade teachers who will see an average class of 24.3 students next year, elementary school principal Steve Emery said.

This barely meets the school policy of 20 students, an average between two grade levels. Emery considered several strategies to accommodate the large class, including adding a classroom teacher, likely the first to be cut in subsequent years.

“We can’t become reactionary; we have to put into place what we think is going to work,” Emery told the board. “We will always have bubble years.”

Data collected this fall shows 20 percent of students are approaching or below the benchmark for literacy proficiency, Emery said, compared to 8 to 9 percent in math. He hopes the extra support will boost those numbers.

The board reduced two paraprofessionals to accommodate the new position, which Emery said parallels administrators’ goals to ensure children are taught by highly qualified teachers.

Middle school principal Frank Calano said the second position, a school-wide computer science teacher, will support a new innovation lab.

In the next two months, administrators will propose merging the computer lab and adjoining industrial arts room into one cohesive “fab lab,” modeled after a concept developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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GEMS computer teacher Dayle Payne and her students had an e-Textile display at this year’s Champlain Mini Maker Faire. (Courtesy photo)

The lab will provide a place to play, create, learn, mentor and invent, Kirsch said.

That’s already happening on a smaller scale with Dayle Payne, who instructs an eighth grade makerspace elective and advises projects on e-textiles, robotics, coding and circuitry.

Students want to do more with computers but lack the space or equipment, Payne said. If approved, the curriculum can expand and the community can use the space.

Administrators discussed engaging community partners like Global Foundries, Mylan Technologies, Champlain College and the University of Vermont to design the lab. In keeping with the trend, FWSU will launch a coding camp for seventh-grade girls this summer.

Calano hopes students will guide their own learning to create “something that can impact the school and the community.”

Despite this year’s budgeting hardships, Kirsch said the FY17 proposal satisfies the school’s needs, and the additions will help Georgia thrive.

“Even without the caps, I think this would be a pretty good budget,” he said.

The Georgia School Board will host a community budget presentation on Monday, Feb. 29 at 6 p.m. in the GEMS library. The next regular board meeting is scheduled for the same time and place on Tuesday, Feb. 2.