On rural schools’ sea of troubles, add another blow

Some of Georgia’s tiniest, most out-of-the-way schools face fiscal calamity as lawmakers wrestle with whether the state should continue a special subsidy for remote districts.

These are school districts in places where the county’s entire enrollment isn’t as large as the freshman class at one Gwinnett high school. Students have the same teacher in 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th grade for basic subjects like math and English; Advanced Placement and other special classes are severely limited or nonexistent; the counties typically have almost no tax base, making them all the more dependent on state funding.

Now Gov. Nathan Deal is proposing to end the $2.6 million, decades old “sparsity” grant program that has provided a financial lifeline to some rural districts. It’s pocket change in a state education budget of about $7 billion, but it’s a fortune for schools that have so little.

“I guess I am going to have to drive the bus, too,” said Jemessyn Foster, superintendent of the state’s smallest district, Taliaferro County schools (about 200 students). Foster said she already does several jobs, including counseling and driving a trash truck.

The grants, mostly in the $100,000 to $200,000 range, amount to 5 percent or more of the annual state funding received by 10 districts around the state. To Taliaferro (pronounced TALL-uh-ver), east of Atlanta, the grant this year is $149,000, or about 12 percent of its state funding. By comparison, a 5 percent cut in Gwinnett County’s state funding would be more than $30 million.

“It looks small, but in proportion, what it means to a small system is gigantic,” said Allen Fort. He’s the superintendent of schools in Quitman County, in southwest Georgia, which stands to lose $110,000, or 6 percent of its state funding. The consequences, Fort says, would be dire: “You’d have to cut teachers.”

The state Education Department is supposed to conduct a periodic study to ensure that the districts should still be getting the money. But the governor’s budget office found out the reviews haven’t been done in about 20 years. So the governor’s office determined that “the need for the sparsity grant program has not been established,” according to Deal’s budget report.

“We felt it’s a better approach to eliminate the sparsity grant and reallocate the $2.6 million,” said Teresa MacCartney, Deal’s budget director.

Scott Austensen, the Department of Education’s chief financial officer, said the same districts have been getting sparsity grants for many years without the studies showing whether they are qualified. While the department supports the state’s push to review the need for programs, he added, “We would be interested in making sure we look at the districts that are losing the (sparsity) money. We are concerned about the impact on some of the districts.”

The state has cut more than $1 billion from education since the recession hit. While all school districts have taken cuts, rural systems were already struggling. They have slashed their programs to the bare minimum, offering few if any advanced classes, foreign language or other electives. They never had much in the first place, so they had little or no fat to cut when bad times hit. Some of them have had trouble keeping teachers, who are lured away by more money or the chance to escape the remoteness.

Sparsity grants date to the 1980s. Lawmakers funded them as a way of subsidizing tiny, rural schools the state determined could not feasibly consolidate with neighboring schools.

More than a decade ago, Gov. Roy Barnes more than doubled sparsity grants to $6.5 million, arguing that the Georgia Constitution required the state to provide a good education to all children.

“A child in Georgia has a constitutional right to a free education, no matter where that child lives,” Barnes said last week. “The happenstance of being born in a poor county does not allow the child to receive an inferior education.”

Barnes’ successor, Gov. Sonny Perdue, generally left the funding in place, but the recession changed everything. Perdue and lawmakers couldn’t shelter the grants when the budgetary bloodletting began. In 2010, the House voted to eliminate the program, but the Senate put about half the money back into the budget.

Deal’s plan would fold the money back into the basic funding that flows to all districts. Gwinnett, Cobb, Fulton would share it with Taliaferro or Quitman.

The governor, meanwhile, is proposing more “equalization funding,” another pot designed to provide extra money to districts with low property wealth. But the key part of the equalization formula — the amount districts can raise per student from their tax base — helps some big suburban districts like Gwinnett, which gets 10 percent of that money. More than a quarter of the funding went to four metro Atlanta districts this year and many poor rural systems, like Quitman and Taliaferro counties, got nothing. Ten of the 21 school systems remote enough to receive sparsity grants this year received no equalization funding.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, said lawmakers are beginning to hear about the proposed cuts from locals. A move may be made to retain at least some of the funding, as happened in 2010.

Any cuts will be tough for the sparsity districts to handle.

Foster, the Taliaferro superintendent, said the district tax rate is at 18 mills and officials probably can’t raise enough before hitting the 20-mill cap to make up for the loss of grant money. That may mean that the district will have to add furlough days for teachers and staff. The tiny system has cut back by not filling positions.

“We’re already at the bare minimum. We have one class at each grade, so we don’t have anywhere to cut teacherwise,” she said.

Fort, the Quitman superintendent, said he has fewer than 30 teachers for the 345 or so students in his system. At the high school, the English teacher handles all four grades. Same with the math, science and history/social studies teachers. “We basically offer the basics. We don’t really have any electives,” he said.

One mill in property taxes raises roughly $70,000. A mill in Gwinnett brings in more than $20 million.

Fort doesn’t want to give up and merge with a nearby school. “Our community deserves to have a high school,” he said. “The nearest one is 25 miles away.”

If the sparsity grant is eliminated, teachers who leave may not be replaced. Or the district will simply have to lay some people off. “You can only cut so much,” he said.

Beverly Grant, a former teacher who runs the local library, said the school system is the “foundation of the community.”

“Basically, it’s the only thing the community really has,” she said. “There are a lot of good people, there are a lot of good kids.”

But it is also a community with high rates of poverty, school dropouts and unemployment. A lot of children come from families that don’t have books around the house. Grant said school officials do a lot with what they have, but, like Fort, she wishes they had more.

Danny Ellis, superintendent in nearby Calhoun County, would see his district of 627 students lose about $190,000 if the sparsity grants go away.

“That is the equivalent of four beginning teachers,” he said. “That would be a huge cut for us. We are down to the positions we have to have.”

Ellis’ county suffered a blow Feb. 1 when Calhoun Memorial Hospital closed. Its unemployment rate was already 18 percent. As in the case of Quitman, the tax base is minimal.

Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, D-Dawson, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and a retired middle school principal, said she’s concerned the cuts would be yet another blow to an area of the state that badly needs help.

“The challenges in Southwest Georgia are numerous,” she said. “We must begin to tie economic development to education and be serious about it.

“We are so far removed from the seat of power in Atlanta, the folks in Southwest Georgia don’t have a clue about what’s happening to them. Rural America has lost so much of its political clout over the years.”

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