The Georgia Association of Educational Leaders kicked off its 44th annual summer conference this weekend at the Jekyll Island Convention Center.

The conference began Saturday and brought in more than 1,300 attendees and vendors this year, said Jody Barrow, president of the GAEL, during opening remarks Sunday afternoon.

Gov. Nathan Deal and his wife Sandra Deal made an appearance at the opening session, at which the governor took the opportunity to discuss ongoing education initiatives in Georgia and to challenge those in the room to continue improving public education across the state.

Deal, who is wrapping up his final year as governor, said much has changed across the education landscape since his last visit to the conference four years ago.

He said he has worked throughout his tenure to increase state funding for education. Over the last eight years, Deal said his administration has been able to include about $3.6 billion in additional funding for education in the budgets.

Most recently, he signed the first state budget to fully fund the QBE formula since the formula’s adoption in 1985.

“We tried a couple of times to look at the QBE formula, to try to reform it. Every time that we undertook that effort, we were confronted from the education community, ‘Well we don’t need reform of the formula, we just need you to fully fund it,’” Deal said. “Well, we have fully funded it.”

Now, Deal challenged, the responsibility falls on educational leaders to make the needed changes that will best serve the state’s students.

“Now is the time to take a look at something that is over 33 years of age as a formula and try to bring it up to speed to the demands that we face in education and in society today,” he said. “I am hopeful that you will be a very important part of that, because you’re the ones on the front line.”

This year’s budget also included an additional $365 million for the teacher’s retirement system, Deal said, and he warned that this will be a contentious issue in the years to come that will require statewide teamwork.

“When you have to continue to pump as much additional money every year into this system to keep it solvent, to be able to fulfill the obligations to those dedicated teachers to retire, it requires that we do our best both from a planning standpoint and also from a funding standpoint,” Deal said.

GAEL officials also gave away several awards Sunday, including the highest award the association gives annually. The H.M. Fulbright Distinguished Service Award, named for the founder of GAEL, was given this year to Sandra Deal, who has promoted literacy education across the state.

“Sandra Deal has made a difference in the lives of thousands and thousands of children in the state of Georgia by encouraging them to read and encouraging us to become a literacy community,” said Jimmy Stokes, GAEL executive director.

Sandra Deal thanked the conference attendees for the opportunity to serve.

“It has been my joy and pleasure to go around the state and reading to children and encouraging them to want to learn to read,” she said.

The conference will end Wednesday. Planned events include lectures and sessions on various issues affecting education today, an exposition for vendors and family-friendly activities on Jekyll Island.

Virgil Cole, superintendent of Glynn County Schools, made welcome remarks during the opening session.

“I want to thank you and welcome you, and thank you for all that you do for the students in the state of Georgia,” Cole said.

The conference aims to provide networking opportunities to participants, Barrow said, and to serve as a motivator for continued good work in schools.

“We have a terrific conference planned for you — one that hopefully will motivate you and provide you the techniques and strategies and help us to move public education even to greater heights in our state,” he said.

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