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Separate and unequal 

Court fight looms between the two Georgias on issue of adequate education

The question is simple. Who has the primary responsibility to pay for the education of Georgia's children?

The state Constitution seems pretty clear on the subject: the state government. And that's why a group of rural educators and school officials want a 1 percent statewide sales tax increase. They say the state just ain't doing its job. The hike would raise an estimated $1.2 billion in 2005 to fix what the educators regard as a broken funding system that risks creating a permanent underclass in rural Georgia because basic educational needs of students in the state's hinterlands are going unmet.

Under the current system, they argue, property tax-poor counties are paying more and more to fund classroom essentials, and they can't keep up, because of state budget cuts, more demands from the state and federal government and years of legislative neglect.

The issue could make for one of the most interesting budget battles in the coming General Assembly session.

The Consortium for Adequate School Funding, which is pushing to close the gap between the educations of rural and metro children, will have plenty of ammunition. They'll point to examples like Oglethorpe County. The 2,200-pupil school system just east of Clarke County and Athens operates on a relatively tiny $14 million annual budget. Last year, the system lost $711,000 in state funding because of budget cuts. It's expected to lose another $230,000 this year. To make up for it, the county has raised its millage rate 3 mils, so that after this year's projected cuts, it's going to be paying 37 percent to 38 percent of its education budget from local funds. State law mandates an 80-20 split between state and local funding.

A $1 million cut may seem like peanuts to metro school systems, but in rural areas that can't generate sales tax and where property values are depressed, it means real pain. Oglethorpe cut $438,000 from its budget last year, says Superintendent Jeffrey Welch, and slashed benefits and administration costs.

"But there's nowhere to go next year," Welch says. "We're going to have to jack up the millage, and we're going to have to let some people go. We're not buying any computers. We didn't buy textbooks. We're not buying buses this year."

Welch got more good news when he was told by the county's planning commission that Oglethorpe's population is expected to triple during the next decade.

"We have no commercial [development] in Oglethorpe County to speak of," Welch says. "A one cent sales tax, which we passed ... brings in less than $3 million in five years. Now, how can I build $10 million to $15 million worth of buildings in the next 10 years at $3 million every five years? How do I get there from here?"

Al Hunter is the president of the Consortium and Brantley County's school superintendent. He sums up the current predicament: "It doesn't really matter how much some of these school [systems] tax themselves. There's not enough tax base there for it to make a difference."

Some legislators (and pundits) already look at the Consortium's plans and see it as a way to take money from wealthy school districts and redistribute that wealth to districts that historically haven't paid their fair share for its children's educations.

But those days are largely gone, according to Joe Martin, a consultant for the Consortium and a former Atlanta School Board member.

"Our folks are saying, 'We know the world isn't fair, but every child should have the basics.'"

The current funding formula "is nothing but a series of building blocks, and where the rub has occurred is that, over time, the Legislature and the governors have funded those building blocks that were most politically popular -- teacher salaries, in particular -- and neglected those building blocks, such as facility upkeep or even textbooks, of all things, for which there wasn't a lot of public support," Martin says.

The dollars the state has allotted counties to pay for books hasn't changed since 1985, nearly two decades. Maintenance and operating costs were increased once since 1985 by $5 per child and then reduced the next year by $3.

About eight years ago, there was a 15 percent cut in the money the state gave counties to pay for school buses, and it was never restored.

On top of that, in Georgia's Quality Basic Education (QBE) law, enacted under former Gov. Joe Frank Harris, there's a provision that says the funding formula should be reviewed and updated every three years.

Jeffrey Williams, the research director for the Georgia School Superintendent's Association, says that's never happened. Finally, in 2000, the Legislature passed a law that required the governor to set up a task force to review the QBE funding scheme within three years.

So far, Gov. Sonny Perdue has listened to the Consortium and acted to address some of its concerns. He's already agreed to pay for a task force to study school funding and is appointing an independent auditor to assess the formula. Those findings will be passed on to the task force. What's more, he's rescinding this year's equalization grant cuts, which help cash-poor districts pay for educational extras the big systems routinely fund, as well as a projected cut for 2005.

But as for a tax increase, Perdue's press secretary, Loretta Lepore, says the governor pledged last week that he "was not going to raise any taxes for fiscal year 2005."

Martin praised Perdue's convening of a commission and the hiring of an independent auditor. "That's unprecedented," he says. But as a bargaining chip to push the General Assembly for more money, Martin says the Consortium has hired a legal team to look at the funding inadequacies.

"There's no way to cover up the fact that the state doesn't have the money that would replenish the cuts" and close the metro-rural gap, Martin says of the necessity of a new tax. "We've got to keep our powder dry. This is a constitutional and ethical issue."

And one that Martin believes the Consortium would likely win in court. Stories like Oglethorpe's dot the state.

Martin says the state could pass it off as a tax shift, because a 1 percent sales tax increase would allow an average property tax rate cut of 2.4 mils across the state, according to Consortium numbers.

It's not clear yet whether Perdue or the Legislature will bite on the scheme.

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