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School system challenges state funding

If some Georgia school districts decide to sue the state of Georgia later this year over a decline in state education funding, McDuffie County will be one of the systems leading the way.

McDuffie County is one of nearly 40 school districts that make up the Consortium for Adequate School Funding, a group that is fighting to level the playing field between low-wealth and high-wealth school systems.

"If this does not produce reasonable results, then we are prepared to sue the state of Georgia," said McDuffie County Superintendent of Schools Ed Grisham. "Hopefully that won't happen. Internally I hope they'll recognize there's a problem, and that they need to make an adjustment. If that happens, then we'll never go to court. But if it doesn't, we'll ask the courts to remedy the situation."

Dr. Grisham said the Consortium is working closely with Governor Sonny Perdue and state education officials to bring about some much needed changes in the system.

"We're asking Gov. Perdue to take into consideration the fact where you've got low property wealth counties, that they just don't have the same ability to raise local taxes as do, say, your metro areas that have a real high property wealth. Therefore, the state needs to put greater weight in their formula toward equalization of the low property wealth districts," he said.

Poorer systems get equalization funding from the state every year to make up for the discrepancy in funds between districts -- which is mostly determined by revenue from property tax -- but local officials feel that equalization number is far below what it needs to be.

McDuffie County receives around $1 million per year in equalization funding, a number that was cut by 2.5 percent before the Consortium fought to have it put back into next year's budget.

Limited options

Unfortunately, getting equalization funding sorted out won't completely solve the problem. There will still be a drastic discrepancy between the money different school systems receive on the local level. Like many other low-wealth districts, the options for McDuffie County are severely limited.

"All (funding) has to come from general state funding or through property tax," said Dr. Grisham. "When we reach a limit with what we can do with property tax, we're at a disadvantage."

McDuffie County does have a one-cent sales tax specifically for education, but those funds can only be used for capital improvements. For example, sales tax dollars can be used to build a new gymnasium, but they can't be used to pay teachers' salaries. Personnel costs make up 89 percent of the school system's total budget.

More bad news for low-wealth systems is that even more cuts are on the horizon for next year. After this year's 2.5 percent cut in state funding, state officials are hinting at even bigger cuts next year.

As a result, the Consortium is preparing a lawsuit against the state of Georgia if the educational financial system doesn't receive an overhaul during the upcoming legislative session which ends in May.

Former Atlanta School Board President Joe Martin, who's spearheading the Consortium, said that it all boils down to ensuring that every child in Georgia gets a decent education.

"We realize that the wealthy systems will always be able to do more, but every child in Georgia should get the basics, and in fact, that's a constitutional commitment of the state," he said. "In recent years, the formula has gotten distorted, and the cuts that have occurred and the ones on the horizon for FY 2005 are so staggering that many systems just can't make it.

"If you're in McDuffie County, where there's not a lot of commercial property or industry, there's nowhere to turn."

Mr. Martin did say that the Consortium isn't opposed to a temporary state sales tax hike -- which he said would be offset by lower property taxes -- to help generate some much needed revenue.

Senator Responds

However, State Senator Joey Brush doesn't think that some of the initial measures the Consortium is proposing are politically feasible -- including the temporary hike in sales tax and the recalculation of equalization funding distributions.

"My feelings right now, I don't think (the legislature) is going to stop the lawsuit," he said. "I don't think we can make them happy enough to stop it. I don't think it's possible for us to do what they're initially asking us to do anyways."

He went on to say that the issue on how to further fund education will be a hot debate during the upcoming legislative session, but that if a resolution isn't found before the final day of the legislative session, May 15, then the state is prepared to go to court.



Web posted on Wednesday, December 31, 2003











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