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Poor Schools Still Get The Short End

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File photo of a deserted school building  (Photo Credit: DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images)

File photo of a deserted school building (Photo Credit: DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images)

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MORGAN, Ga. (AP) — Legislators this year thought they had fixed a $436 million grant program intended to raise up the state’s poorest school districts, but you can’t convince folks in rural Calhoun County that they succeeded.

The “equalization” fund’s biggest check this fall will go to Gwinnett County — Georgia’s largest school district — followed by Clayton, Paulding and Henry county schools. At the same time, many rural districts in desperate financial condition will receive smaller grants than last year, and some will receive no help at all.

Here in impoverished Calhoun County, the grant of $150,000 for the coming school year represents a 50 percent cut from last year. Gwinnett will receive $43 million, an increase over last year and enough to cover Calhoun’s entire school budget for six or seven years.

“We don’t have art, we don’t have music, we don’t have JROTC,” said Calhoun County Superintendent Danny Ellis. “We don’t have the luxury of offering summer school. … We are cutting to the bone and there is no meat. It is literally a situation where you just wonder what can we do to stay open.”

Parent Shawanda Cannon, who graduated from Calhoun County schools and has children attending them now, said, “There is so much we need. I want my children to have the same opportunities as children in Gwinnett County.”

The equalization fund, set up in 1985, is supposed to provide greater equity in school funding for systems with lower property tax bases. But the collapse of the real estate market in metro Atlanta has changed this landscape, too, and the largest grants go to districts that are neither rural nor comparatively poor.

In the final hours of their 2012 session, state legislators passed a bill intended to slow the growth of the equalization fund and get more money to poor rural districts. And, in fact, this upcoming school year’s grant to Gwinnett is $13 million lower than it would have been under the old rules.

“It’s a lot fairer now than it was,” said Senate Education Chairman Fran Millar, R-Atlanta.

But the Legislature’s last-minute fix didn’t result in windfalls for many of the state’s poorest districts, and communities left out in the cold are mystified by lawmakers’ interpretation of “equalization.”

“What can we do to get some?” asked Dennis Holsey, whose son attends Hancock (County) Central High School. “We need money. We don’t have too many jobs in our area. Poverty is high. It’s not fair that our kids don’t have the same opportunities.”

Hancock County’s system, with the second-lowest household income in the state in 2010, gets no money from the equalization fund because, under the formula used for doling out the money, Hancock is too property-wealthy for its number of students.

Rep. Rahn Mayo, D-Decatur, a member of the House Education Committee, said the entire state funding system for schools needs to be reconsidered.

“Where is the great equalizer in equalization?” asked Mayo, who voted against the legislation changing the formula. “You can create a formula that gives the money to the people you want to give money to.”

Even with this year’s change in the formula, many suburban and urban districts will get much of the equalization money. At the same time, 82 mostly small-town districts that have been receiving equalization grants will get less money during the upcoming year. About 50 will get more.

Gwinnett County officials say they raise less money per student from their tax base — the key part of the equalization formula — than many rural districts that are generally considered some of the poorest in the country.

“Our (tax digest) has declined much faster than the rest of the state,” said Rick Cost, chief financial officer for Gwinnett schools. “At the same time, we’ve also been growing faster in student population — the double whammy.”

Atlanta city schools and the county systems in Fulton, DeKalb and Cobb don’t qualify for equalization funds, although some officials there aren’t sure why. The formula, which takes into account property tax collections and total students, simply doesn’t work in their favor, as it does in Gwinnett. Cherokee County, meanwhile, received $404,000 during the 2011-2012 school year, but will receive nothing for the year to come.

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‘It makes no sense to me’

The arithmetic may baffle officials in metro Atlanta, but it seems just plain crazy to people in low-income counties.

“It makes no sense to me,” said Rep. Sistie Hudson, D-Sparta, former mayor of the county seat of Hancock County in East Georgia. “My little poor counties are not low-wealth? Forty-seven percent of our children live in poverty and we’re not low-wealth? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

The median household income in Hancock was slightly more than $22,000 a year between 2006-2010, according to census data. The state average was closer to $49,000.

Ellis, the superintendent in Calhoun County, presides over a two-school system of about 600 students from a no-stoplight town 80 miles south of Columbus. Vast fields of peanuts, cotton and corn spread out across much of Calhoun County. The population is slightly less than 6,700, about one-fifth of which resides in the local state prison. The non-prison population is about half of what it was a century ago.

The Board of Education office in Morgan is in an old red-brick bank building across the street from the county courthouse and a long-closed gas station. The high school in nearby Edison is a half-century old and attached to the middle school. Much of the school — from science lab equipment to lockers — is original, Ellis said.

The system is so strapped that teachers will get seven days of furloughs; Calhoun also cut a bus route and all three instructional coaches to save money. It offers only one AP class, in history. By comparison, Collins Hill High School in Gwinnett offers 21 AP courses. Calhoun’s high school has a total of 12 teachers; Collins Hill has 21 in the English department alone. Teachers in Gwinnett face two furlough days next year, five fewer than teachers in Calhoun County.

While some test scores have improved in Calhoun schools, the average math and verbal SAT score in 2010-2011 was nearly 200 points below the state average and among the lowest. Nearly three-fourths of students failed the economics/business end-of-course test, and more than half failed U.S. history and Math II tests.

Cannon, who has two sons in Calhoun’s elementary school, a daughter in the middle school and an “adopted little sister” in the high school, said the system needs just about everything. There’s not enough technology, business classes, extracurricular activities, foreign language classes, Advanced Placement classes or even classes that fully prepare kids for college, she said.

When Cannon graduated from high school in 1994, she had to take remedial classes in college. She said that’s fairly common for Calhoun County grads.

“There is nothing here. You really need something to attract quality teachers here,” Cannon said. “We have some smart kids here, but they are not challenged.”

By contrast, Gwinnett is often considered out in front on education issues, and even in these tight times, it is making a digital push that goes far beyond having high-tech gizmos and gadgets in the classroom.

The system plans to invest $54 million on hardware and technology improvements that, within a few years, will make hardback textbooks obsolete, allow students 24/7 access to their schoolwork and give teachers the ability to give tests and track student success — all via the Internet.

Paying their fair share?

One complaint about rural systems is that some refuse to increase taxes to bring in more local money. That’s not the case in Calhoun, whose tax rate is lower than most metro Atlanta counties’ but higher than many rural systems’.

Governments use “mills” to calculate property taxes. A mill equals $1 per $1,000 in assessed taxable value, so if the value of property goes down, the value of a mill goes down, too. A mill brings in just $115,000 in Calhoun County. One mill in Gwinnett County brought in $25 million this year, although that figure is falling along with the property values.

Allen Fort, superintendent in Quitman County, where one mill raises $70,000, said the Discover Mills mall and Gwinnett Arena are worth more than his entire southwest Georgia county.

“Their ability to generate money is almost limitless,” said Fort, whose county gets no equalization money. “Our ability to generate money is very limited.”

Quitman has about 350 kids and had a millage rate of 15.75 last year; Gwinnett has more than 160,000 students and a millage rate of 20.55.

When viewed in the context of median household income in poorer counties, the grants appear to be way out of whack. But Cost, the Gwinnett schools CFO, said it only makes sense to use property wealth per student, as opposed to median income, to determine where the grants go.

“Since our only source of local revenue is the property tax, that should be the only measure we use for wealth,” he said. “Per capita income doesn’t make sense because we don’t get income taxes.”

What about us?

People in rural districts aren’t the only ones wondering whether the formula remains broken. Cobb and DeKalb officials say they can’t figure out why Gwinnett gets the biggest share of money, while they get nothing.

“The intent is to be fair, which is a good intent,” said DeKalb School Board Chairman Eugene Walker, who voted on the original equalization plan as a state senator. “But how can you justify giving Gwinnett $43 million and us nothing? That’s certainly not equal.”

Rep. Mike Dudgeon, R-Johns Creek, who sponsored the bill altering the formula this year, said, “The grant was never intended for places like DeKalb. Some of these counties that are complaining, in my opinion, don’t have a place to complain.”

But some argue it was probably never intended for counties like Gwinnett and Henry, either.

Quitman County’s Fort said it’s hard to see how the state’s equalization grants are in fact equalizing the education children receive. He compared the school systems to car owners.

“What we have is a Ford Pinto,” he said. “What Fulton and Cobb have are a Cadillac and Ferrari. What Gwinnett has is a Lamborghini. When their Lamborghini has a flat tire, they get an equalization grant. When our Pinto has a flat, we get nothing.”

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Big winners, rural losers

The state allocated $436 million for the upcoming school year for equalization grants to help systems with low property wealth. Here are the five systems that will get the most grant money, and what the systems in the counties with the lowest household income will receive. Note: Income is not part of the formula for equalization grants.

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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