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State slashing funding for strapped schools
Liberty, Long systems losing funding
Sonny Perdue
Gov. Sonny Perdue
As school systems across Georgia continue to crunch numbers and work with smaller budgets this fiscal year, which goes into effect July 1, local superintendents weren’t happy to learn Georgia lawmakers cut equalization funding by about  $112 million across the state this year in a bill recently sign by Gov. Sonny Perdue.
Each year, during the early days of summer, Georgia public school officials prepare their budgets using a complex formula that takes into account federal, state and local income.
However, because one of the main components — local tax revenues from property taxes — varies substantially from system to system, systems with low populations and property values traditionally have received help from the state in the form of equalization funds to make up any disparity in local revenue.
“Equalization was meant to provide additional funds to rural districts that don’t have property wealth to raise funds,” said Bert Brantley, representative for Perdue, who is at the helm of the state’s education budget.
This cut affects both Liberty and Long schools, systems that have both qualified for and received significant equalization funds for many years.
“We were cut by $3.2 million over what we received in the prior year,” said Jason Rogers, assistant superintendent of finances with the Liberty County School System. “We have historically received a little over $15 million in this one grant but our FY 2010 allocation sheet lists $11,847,154.”
“We’re just like Liberty. We very much rely on equalization funding,” said Long County Superintendent Dr. Robert Waters, whose schools lost about $520,000 due to the cut.
Brantley said the state doesn’t like pulling funding from schools, but explained the cut was necessary because, according to him, the program has gotten off track and out of control. He said the formula used to determine funding based on property wealth per student, but that no longer works because of recent growth within some of Georgia’s systems.
“It’s failing because you’ve got systems that are either just now qualifying or are seeing their numbers rise,” he said. “We’re trimming the slope. You want it to be a lot more reasonable and re-center the formula.”
He said the current system is causing large chunks of the already-overstretched funds to go toward systems that have large budgets and aren’t as impacted by the money the program provides, whereas the same amount of grant money would make a bigger difference in more rural systems.
“Almost half [of the approximately $550 million allotted for equalization this year] is going to 15 suburban or urban schools,” Brantley said.
Because of the growth in the program, a cut had to be made as the funding need has doubled since 2004, reaching almost $600,000 million. A growth rate, Brantley said, the state budget can’t maintain.
“We have a flawed system of figuring out where equalization funds go,” Brantley said, explaining that the governor’s office has tried for two years to restructure the formula. This year, they proposed the cut and tried again to get the formula changed but had no luck.
 The Georgia Legislature passed the cut but not a restructured formula, which Brantley suggests could be somewhat corrected by taking into account income levels.
Brantley said another big problem with the program is that it was designed as a supplemental funding program, but many systems are now relying on that money to function.
Bridget Welch, finance director for Long County, said she’s only working with a total budget of $15.4 million, so a half million cut makes a big impact. She said the funding is essential to her budget and the system uses the money to help out in many areas.
“It funds a lot of indirect costs. It’s kind of like local money; we use it for support type services as well as classroom services.”
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