Catlady, a longtime poster to this blog, has been asking the AJC to look at the strange calculus of Georgia school equalization grants through which Gwinnett out earns many poor Georgia counties.
The equalization grant program forces wealthier school districts to share money with lower wealth districts. While similar grants have been controversial in other parts of the country, the program has not roused widespread opposition here.
I am happy to report that AJC reporters James Salzer and Nancy Badertscher examined this year’s $436 million grant program and found some odd stuff.
Among their points: Somehow, Cobb and DeKalb don’t qualify for equalization grants, but Gwinnett and Henry do.
As Quitman County’s school chief Allen Fort said about the formula: “What we have is a Ford Pinto. What Fulton and Cobb have are a Cadillac and Ferrari. What Gwinnett has is a Lamborghini. When their Lamborghini has a flat tire, they get an equalization grant. When our Pinto has a flat, we get nothing.”
One of the systems the AJC reporters highlight is Calhoun County, which they describe as “a two-school system of about 600 students from a no-stoplight town 80 miles south of Columbus. Vast fields of peanuts, cotton and corn spread out across much of Calhoun County. The population is slightly less than 6,700, about one-fifth of which resides in the local state prison. The non-prison population is about half of what it was a century ago.”
The piece juxtaposes Calhoun with Gwinnett: (This is an excerpt. Please read the full AJC.com story.)
The “equalization” fund’s biggest check this fall will go to Gwinnett County — Georgia’s largest school district — followed by Clayton, Paulding and Henry county schools. At the same time, many rural districts in desperate financial condition will receive smaller grants than last year, and some will receive no help at all.
Here in impoverished Calhoun County, the grant of $150,000 for the coming school year represents a 50 percent cut from last year. Gwinnett will receive $43 million, an increase over last year and enough to cover Calhoun’s entire school budget for six or seven years.
“We don’t have art, we don’t have music, we don’t have JROTC,” said Calhoun County Superintendent Danny Ellis. “We don’t have the luxury of offering summer school. … We are cutting to the bone and there is no meat. It is literally a situation where you just wonder what can we do to stay open.”
The system is so strapped that teachers will get seven days of furloughs; Calhoun also cut a bus route and all three instructional coaches to save money. It offers only one AP class, in history. By comparison, Collins Hill High School in Gwinnett offers 21 AP courses. Calhoun’s high school has a total of 12 teachers; Collins Hill has 21 in the English department alone. Teachers in Gwinnett face two furlough days next year, five fewer than teachers in Calhoun County.
The equalization fund, set up in 1985, is supposed to provide greater equity in school funding for systems with lower property tax bases. But the collapse of the real estate market in metro Atlanta has changed this landscape, too, and the largest grants go to districts that are neither rural nor comparatively poor.
In the final hours of their 2012 session, state legislators passed a bill intended to slow the growth of the equalization fund and get more money to poor rural districts. And, in fact, this upcoming school year’s grant to Gwinnett is $13 million lower than it would have been under the old rules.
“It’s a lot fairer now than it was,” said Senate Education Chairman Fran Millar, R-Atlanta.
But the Legislature’s last-minute fix didn’t result in windfalls for many of the state’s poorest districts, and communities left out in the cold are mystified by lawmakers’ interpretation of “equalization.”
“What can we do to get some?” asked Dennis Holsey, whose son attends Hancock (County) Central High School. “We need money. We don’t have too many jobs in our area. Poverty is high. It’s not fair that our kids don’t have the same opportunities.”
Hancock County’s system, with the second-lowest household income in the state in 2010, gets no money from the equalization fund because, under the formula used for doling out the money, Hancock is too property-wealthy for its number of students.
“Our [tax digest] has declined much faster than the rest of the state,” said Rick Cost, chief financial officer for Gwinnett schools. “At the same time, we’ve also been growing faster in student population — the double whammy.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog