Aid to poorer school districts could cost Gwinnett, others

The measure to change a formula for allocating state money prompted one school board member recently to direct a public scolding at a Duluth legislator whose name is on the bill.

But, the legislator, Rep. Brooks Coleman, said the alarm bells are premature.

Coleman, chairman of the House Education Committee, said the bill was prefiled two weeks before the 2010 session convened and will not be considered without more public hearings.

“Nothing has been done intentionally to hurt Gwinnett County, because that’s my county. I’m going to look out for Gwinnett,” Coleman said. “But as chair of the Education Committee, I need to take a look and get a good picture of the whole thing.”

The bill proposes to change the allocation formula for so-called “equalization grants.” These grants are awarded to the poorest school districts in the state so education spending can be placed on an equal footing with wealthier school systems.

To qualify, a school district must fall in the bottom 75 percent in wealth per student among the state’s 180 school districts. Wealth is determined by the value of taxable property within the school district divided by school enrollment. Districts ranking below 47th in wealth per student receive a portion of the grant money, with the poorest receiving the largest share.

The new legislation would change that formula and weight it more heavily in favor of the poorest districts, those ranking in the bottom 25 percent. That shift could cost Gwinnett $26 million in reduced state funding this year. Other metro Atlanta counties, such as Rockdale, Clayton, Douglas, Coweta, Hall and Henry, would likewise face reductions. The remaining metro counties all rank among the top in wealth, so they receive no state equalization money.

Rick Cost, Gwinnett schools finance director, said the equalization formula was set up to fund all the poorer districts to where they would rank 46th — just in the top 25 percent — in wealth per student.

Gwinnett, which ranks 63rd out of 180 districts in wealth per student, has the largest student enrollment in the state, about 160,000. And even though its tax digest is virtually identical to Fulton County, Cost said, it receives equalization funding because it has 160,000 students, almost twice that of Fulton.

Under the current system, Gwinnett would receive about $36 million in equalization funding, according to figures from the House Budget Office. Under terms of the new bill, the district would receive $9 million. On the other hand, Pelham City Schools, the poorest system in the state, currently qualifies for $2.7 million in funding. Under the proposed legislation, it would receive $4 million.

Gwinnett school board member Louise Radloff did not mince words during a recent legislative update.

“Why would a local delegation from Gwinnett County introduce a bill changing the equalization formula?” she asked. “[Coleman] is from Gwinnett County, and we are 160,000 kids and 80,000 of them on free or reduced lunch. ... A poor student in Gwinnett County is just as eligible as a poor student in any other county.”

“Most people still think Gwinnett County is silk stocking, lily-white and rich,” school Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said.

Coleman said he knows better. The education committee released these bills after conversations with school superintendents, teachers and administrators.

“We’re just simply looking at different methods of funding,” he said. “Alvin has made it very clear he’s concerned, as well as Henry County. Of course, the lower 45 are saying it’s wonderful. We’re hearing from all of them.”

Gwinnett school board chairman Mary Kay Murphy said she was relieved to hear there would be opportunity to weigh in.

“I’m confident [Coleman] has the very best interest of our community at heart,” she said. Nevertheless, she said, the board remains steadfast in its opposition to the bill.

“It’s not just a consideration for this year,” she said. “It’s for down the road as well.”

How equalization works:

Burke County and Emanuel County in east Georgia provide an example of how the formula works.

Both county school systems have about 4,800 students and both have about 27 percent of their population living below poverty level. However, Emanuel County Schools will receive $3.1 million in equalization grants; Burke will receive none. Its tax base includes the Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant, so it ranks 20th in the state in wealth per student.

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