Originally created 04/21/01

Poor school systems seek money solutions



ATLANTA - School superintendents from Georgia's poorest counties are looking for ways to boost state spending in their mostly rural systems.

At least some of those superintendents, who met with Gov. Roy Barnes' education advisers this week, say that if they can't find a solution, a lawsuit against the state could be the answer.

"I had a couple of calls today from superintendents expressing that they didn't have a lot of confidence" that the governor's office would come up with the funding, Brantley County School Superintendent William A. Hunter said Friday. "They were facing some real obstacles with kids and budgets, and they're ready to go forward (with a lawsuit)."

Mr. Hunter, who has worked with the governor's office for about three years on the issue, was one of 51 superintendents at a meeting between low-wealth school system leaders and state staffers Wednesday in Macon.

Small, poor school systems aren't able to raise as much money per pupil through property and sales taxes as wealthier ones. That translates into larger school systems being able to afford extras - such as better equipment and more elective courses - that smaller ones can't even consider.

Superintendents say changes called for in the governor's education reform plans, including more classrooms for smaller classes, just add to the already difficult job of balancing their limited budgets.

"Because of that lack of ability to raise funds, any change in ... expectations drastically impacts our school systems," said Carl Bethune, the superintendent of schools in Jefferson County.

Ron Newcomb, the governor's top education adviser, said Mr. Barnes is sympathetic to the difficulties of poor school systems and that work is already under way to help them.

Mr. Newcomb said the formula for how state taxpayer funds flow to local districts has already been changed to benefit poorer systems. One change takes into account the ability of larger systems to raise big bucks through sales taxes, effectively increasing how much state money poor systems need in comparison.

Another formula, to equalize the amount of state tax money systems receive, would help the poorest ones, but is being phased in over several years because of its cost.

Other parts of Mr. Barnes' education reform act will indirectly help poor districts, Mr. Newcomb said.

Rural superintendents, who have met with the governor's staff several times during the past year, say they're mostly pleased with how the meetings have gone.

"I really think the discussions were very positive," Mr. Hunter said. "What came out of those discussions is that we're at least going to have an opportunity to have our voices heard."

A potential lawsuit, he said, would say that the funding gap between rich and poor school systems is unconstitutional because it leads to children getting unequal educations.

It likely would call for a plan that would take money from wealthy counties and redistribute it. But almost everyone involved said they'd like to settle the issue in the board room, not the courtroom.

"It's a very difficult, time-consuming process," said Mr. Hunter, who was a superintendent in Arkansas in the early 1980s when school systems successfully sued the state on similar grounds. "I've lived through that once in my life, and I honestly don't want to live through it again."

Reach Doug Gross at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.