Thanks to a stronger economy and some financial planning, Wiregrass legislators report the state’s Special Education Trust Fund and General Fund look strong heading into the next year.
State Sen. Donnie Chesteen (R-Geneva) and Reps. Paul Lee (R-Dothan) and Jeff Sorrells (R-Hartford) updated the Houston County Republican Women on the recently completed legislative session Thursday. Chesteen, a former teacher and coach who sits on the Senate’s Education Policy committee, noted the education budget reached $7.1 billion – the highest amount in state history.
“We were able to give teachers a 4 percent raise,” he said. “This is the first time that (new) teachers are making more than $40,000 a year. That’s about mid-range in terms of the nation.”
The extra funding comes partially through a growing economy and the rolling reserve program legislators established in 2011. The rolling reserve has prevented proration – a constant budget-reduction threat in the 2000s – since its inception, Chesteen said.
The financial health of the budget has allowed further investment in the Advancement and Technology Fund, the First Class Pre-K program and the hiring of 250 more fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade teachers. Chesteen said the Advancement and Technology Fund – which gives school systems discretionary funds that can be used of facilities, technology, or security upgrades – will increase from $39 million to $199 million this year.
The Dothan City Schools system will receive $2.4 million from the fund this year, while the Houston County Schools system will garner $1.7 million.
“It’s a very healthy education budget,” Chesteen said.
Lee, a member of the House’s Ways and Means General Fund committee, addressed the General Fund, which he said reached $2.2 billion for the first time since 2008.
Lee said employees paid through the General fund will receive a 2 percent pay increase, and the fund projects to roll over $85 million into next year. That will allow the state to continue to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Plan as federal dollars to support the program that offers insurance for children of working-class families decline.
Several attendees asked the legislators questions about education, touching on subjects like charter schools, retired teacher pay, and Common Core. Sorrells, in his first year as a legislator, expressed pride in a pair of bills that he believes will improve education moving forward.
“One was a bill to allow school boards to choose curriculum where they can teach the Bible as an elective,” he said. “I think the demise of the country started when we took God out of the schools.”
Sorrells also referenced a bill that requires schools to start the day with a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.