Originally created 02/21/00

Officials clash on numbers



ATLANTA -- Policy disagreement between Georgia's Republican schools Superintendent Linda Schrenko and Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes is understandable. But their math calculations don't agree either.

Her figures show local school districts will lose tons of money as a result of his education-reform bill, while his calculations show they'll come out ahead.

Debate in the state House centered mostly on the issue of ending tenure for new teachers, but math will matter more in the Senate. As the Senate considers Mr. Barnes' bill this week, the debate is more likely to hinge on funding winners and losers now that changes in the wording on ending tenure has satisfied many legislators concerned about teacher job protection.

"When the governor is telling you one thing and I am telling you another, it comes down to who do you believe," Mrs. Schrenko said. "It's easy for the Democrats to believe the governor and Republicans to believe me."

Mr. Barnes' legislative package boosts money for local schools and provides for quicker updates on the data used in figuring how much they qualify for, good news for rapidly growing school districts. And the package proposes state funding for counselors, nurses and technology specialists many school systems had been paying for without state money -- more good news, local administrators say.

Mr. Barnes' education reform bill, House Bill 1187, also lowers the maximum class size during the next four years. Smaller classes require more teachers and classroom space, and that is where the added expense comes in for local systems.

"Probably most school systems across the state have had tight budgets for several years," said Gene Spires, controller for Richmond County schools. "It's been hard to budget with the nice raises (legislators) have been giving."

Teachers have gotten a string of 6 percent annual pay raises, forcing local systems each time to come up with the cost of fringe benefits tied to the increasing salaries. Local systems that supplement teachers' pay as a way to lure recruits also have come up with the supplements for added teachers.

Mrs. Schrenko estimates, for example, that Richmond County will need 280 additional teachers to comply with class-size mandates in the bill based on next year's estimated enrollment. Using an average teacher salary of $35,000, she figures the increased faculty would cost the district $2.7 million more than the extra dollars available to the district in Mr. Barnes' legislation.

Mr. Spires hasn't run the numbers, but he says the average salary is actually around $49,000 and Mrs. Schrenko hasn't included building new classrooms -- something he expects will require another five-year local sales tax levy.

Mr. Barnes agreed Friday to an amendment in the Senate Education Committee that will give local school districts four years to reach the lower class sizes, cushioning the transition.

The governor's staff has met with about 75 superintendents and legislators to explain the new funding and to ease their anxieties. Mr. Barnes is asking the Legislature to fund 16,000 more teaching positions than would be required statewide, just to give local school boards flexibility.

"They come away realizing that our math is pretty good math," said Ron Newcomb, Mr. Barnes' chief education aide.

Mr. Newcomb admits some systems could have a tougher time adjusting to the requirements of the new bill than those districts that don't pay salary supplements or reach their class ratios with some lower-paid teacher's aides instead of a full staff of certified instructors. Many of those systems that hired aides with money appropriated for teachers took the balance and spent it on administrative salaries or other things that don't directly benefit students, he said.

"You always hear about laying off the poor old parapros (paraprofessionals). You don't ever hear them talk about cutting any administrators, do you?" Mr. Newcomb said.

Others familiar with school finances disagree.

"I have heard them saying `you don't understand.' But I think I do understand," said Doug Eza, operations director for Oconee County schools. "Rather than talking politically, we ought to be talking facts."

Mr. Eza estimates complying with the new requirements would cost his small schools system $1.9 million, including the cost of renting a dozen portable classrooms.

Mr. Barnes is expected next year to bring the state formula for funding school construction in line with his class-size caps. The state now pays for one classroom for every 25 students even though that already exceeds maximum class size.

"It's going to cause a massive need for construction, especially in the elementary grades," said Jeffrey Williams, director of the Consortium for Education Research in Georgia. "I'm certain the bulk of the need will be met by local dollars."

Adapting will be a challenge in Savannah, too, said Diane Cantor, president of the Chatham County Board of Education. Raising taxes won't be possible politically, she said.

"We will have to seriously examine our locally funded programs and have a sharp knife," she said.

Savannah's state Sen. Eric Johnson plans to make an issue of the funding problems when the Senate debates the bill this week. He accused Mr. Barnes and his Democratic allies of railroading the bill through.

"There are just dramatic repercussions to this bill largely because they have failed to consult with the superintendents and parents," said Mr. Johnson, who is Republican leader in the Senate. "I think what's happening is the general public is frustrated with the public school system, and a $1 million ad campaign has convinced them that this is reform. This isn't reform. It's bureaucracy."

Savannah's other state senator, Democrat Regina Thomas, is concerned about insufficient funding but eager for reform.

"If the state mandates something, it should pay for it," she said. "(But) it will not change how I vote on the bill. We have to start somewhere, even if we have to come back next year to fix something."

Reach Walter C. Jones at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.