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With Enrollment Falling, Chancellor Sonny Perdue Warns of Layoffs in Higher Ed

From left, Technical College System of Georgia Commissioner Greg Dozier, Department of Early Care and Learning Director Amy Jacobs, University System of Georgia Chancellor Sonny Perdue and State School Superintendent Richard Woods. Credit: Ross Williams / Georgia Recorder

Tough financial times could be ahead for the University System of Georgia, Chancellor Sonny Perdue said before a joint budget committee last week.

“We will commit to you that we’re going to do our level best to do more with less,” he said. “It’s not gonna get any better for the next couple of years either.”

Perdue told lawmakers the formula the state government uses to calculate its share of money for the university is primarily based on the cost to educate students, with total credit hours from two years prior as the main input. But enrollment is down at most of the system’s 26 universities. Only Augusta University, Georgia Tech, Georgia State University, the University of Georgia and Georgia Southwestern State University saw enrollment increases between fall 2016 and fall 2022. The rest saw enrollment decline.

Fewer students means fewer credit hours and less money to pay for operation costs. “Our system is built on continuous climbing, climbing, climbing, and now we see with enrollment decline, that brings more challenges here based on the formula,” Perdue said.

Perdue, who was Georgia’s governor between 2003–2011, imposed deep state budget cuts during the Great Recession. He said he has experience operating on a tight budget, but he warned that layoffs could be possible, especially at smaller institutions.

“I presented five budgets to the appropriations committee that had less money, literally less money than the year before. So we know about how to do more with less. And we’re doing more with less, our institutions are doing a great job realigning here, taking out any kind of excess they can find in that, but when you have over 80% of your budget at institutions being people, guess what? That means people, and that’s going to affect you, and you’re going to hear about it,” he said.

Gov. Brian Kemp’s proposed budget contains new college spending, such as $18 million to fund the increased employer share of health insurance costs and $87.4 million to fund a $2,000 pay raise for full-time employees. Perdue said the raises are well-deserved and much appreciated, but he said that they will come at a cost of about $40 million to the university system, to provide matching raises to about 15,500 workers who are not included.

“Obviously, that’s not your fault, but the people who are not covered we think are valuable to the system. They’re just not in that state-funded category, but we want to do right by them as well,” he said. “You all need to know that number that also affects the challenges as we go forward.”

Kemp has also pledged efforts designed to boost retention, including $61.2 million to extend the HOPE Scholarship to 100% of tuition at all Georgia public universities and loan forgiveness programs for high-demand fields including law enforcement and nursing.

The committee also heard Jan. 18 from State School Superintendent Richard Woods. Primary education makes up the biggest chunk of Georgia’s budget, and this year, Kemp’s proposal includes $1.1 billion in new money for K-12 education. This includes $290 million to fund $2,000 pay raises effective Sept. 1, $27 million to pay school counselors, $25 million for learning loss grants and $115 million to bolster school security.

Sen. Billy Hickman (R-Statesboro) said he wanted to know more about the latter. “Is there any guidelines on how that’s going to be administered and what kinds of qualifications a school’s got to have to meet them? Are we just talking about additional police officers around the schools? Are we talking about metal detectors going in the schools?”

The department is awaiting guidance from the governor’s office about what expenses would qualify, but Woods said the money will likely be used for one-time improvements rather than hiring permanent staff.

The Department of Education is also in talks with the governor’s office about how to spend the proposed funding for school counselors. One idea being discussed is focusing on hiring career counselors to allow school counselors already on the payroll to focus more on other aspects of their jobs.

“This additional funding is well-appreciated, but we’re having an issue with finding qualified individuals to fill those positions as well,” Woods added.

As to the learning loss grants, Woods said initial data shows Georgia students are doing relatively well in catching up after the pandemic compared to students in other states. But he said the amount of learning loss students face differs across districts.

“By and large, we’re in good shape across the state, and anything that we have seen as a loss can be overcome within a reasonable timeframe,” he said.

Woods reiterated his support for updating the Quality Basic Education formula, which has controlled the amount of state funding districts receive since it was established in 1985. Education advocates have been calling for an update to the formula for years, and a team of influential senators formed a committee to look into that last year.

When asked by lawmakers about his thoughts, Woods expressed approval but stopped short of calling for a full rewrite.

“It would be my recommendation that instead of a complete overhaul, we begin to maybe kind of piecemeal it, look at what is definitely more viable or more important and make some adjustments on a smaller scale so that we basically don’t turn over the apple cart all at once,” he said.

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