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Group gives up fight for equal school funding — for now

POSTED: October 14, 2008 5:00 a.m.

The Consortium for Adequate School Funding, a group representing school systems including Effingham County, has withdrawn its lawsuit against the state.

The lawsuit began because of the austerity cuts implemented by the state.

“There’s (quality basic education) funding formula that the state provides us so much money as a school system, and what they’ve done the last six or seven years now is actually cut the amount they normally pay us,” Superintendent Randy Shearouse said.

“I think everyone in education understood that when it was lean years, that you have to cut and you have to make reductions. But even when the economy was better, and the state had plenty of resources, they kept the austerity cuts in. I think a lot of folks, including us, thought that was unfair that they would continue their cuts, even though they didn’t need to or have to.

“Of course, now we’re going through another lean time,” Shearouse continued, “so you expect that you’re going to have to make some cuts that we’ve already made for this year because of the slow economy. But you hope that during good times, they would fully fund the formula, which would provide a lot of extra resources for our students here.”

He said there has been a shift in the burden of education, and a larger percentage of the cost is being paid for at the local level instead of at the state level.

“Education does take a lot of money in the state, but you have to look at the population growth in the state, too. If you look at it, I saw (state Sen.) Jack Hill’s column. His column actually showed that we spend less as a state than we did 10 years ago when you look at inflation. I think that would probably be the same way with education, though you’re showing a larger percentage if you took into account inflation and the number of kids we’ve increased. It’s probably not that big of an increase if it’s an increase at all.”

Shearouse said there are some costs to the school system that are mandated, but the system still has to pay for those costs.

“(They are) great things like raises for teachers, but that costs the local system. We’re mandated to give them a raise, which we want to, but we also have to pay for it.”

He said there are positions that the state does not fund as well.

“Even a system our size, there’s one finance director, and no secretaries tied to that,” Shearouse said. “So can one finance person do everything that needs to be done for 1,800 employees? No corporation, I don’t care how lean they are can operate under those guidelines.”

Shearouse said there was a transfer of judges that made the consortium decide the current path was not in the best interest of the school systems.

“There was a transfer of judges — apparently that’s the reason why the consortium thought that it was probably better to change and back away for right now,” he said.

In a statement, Gov. Sonny Perdue said the consortium was searching for a better forum.

“I am particularly troubled by the consortium’s blatant and unfounded disrespect for the judiciary in general and Judge Craig Schwall in particular. Before Judge Schwall could even make a ruling, the consortium baselessly accused him of not being impartial, retreated and expressed plans to file again in a transparent attempt at forum shopping that undermines the most basic principles of this country’s legal system and the rule of law.”

Perdue said he hopes school systems will end the litigation that has been a “burden on Georgia’s taxpayers.”

“The plaintiff’s decision to withdraw this case is a victory for Georgia citizens who have been paying both sides of the lawsuit.

Georgia taxpayers have paid well over $2 million in both bringing and defending this suit.”

Shearouse said that funding itself does not raise test scores, but it would provide more opportunities for the students in Effingham County.

“You do the best you can with what you have,” he said. “We added art this year, which is a local expense. I’m sorry that we couldn’t have done it years ago, because I wish my children had had those opportunities.

“We can provide the basics, but there’s more that our students could really benefit from if we had the funding.”

He said people ask how it is that the county is a “poor county,” but looking at the tax base, the county ranks 135 out of approximately 189 school systems in the state.

“It’s hard for us to have the extras like art, like foreign language in elementary and middle school,” Shearouse said. “It’s just hard for us to have as many advanced placement classes — a lot of opportunities we could have if we had more funding, which would be a benefit for our students, and to me that’s the difference.”

“Money’s not going to make a difference in necessarily that test scores are going to go up because we spend more money per child. We spend one of the lesser amounts in the state and still have good results. But there are a lot more reasons that are tied to that too — because of good parent support, good teachers and all those things enter in, and that’s why we have good results. We could have a lot more for our kids if we had additional resources.”

Shearouse said the board will have to look at the situation to decide if it will continue to support the consortium.

“This was a surprise for all of us,” he said. “We did not know it was going in this direction. We’ll look at it. We don’t want to be spending taxpayer dollars on something that is not going to benefit us at some point.”

He said there is an argument that the consortium has already helped the system because the state has given some of the cuts back to the system in the budget last year.

“It’s not a good position for the board to be in,” Shearouse said. “I don’t want to sue the state. I think we need to work together and improve education together. I think the main thing we want out of the whole thing is just to fund us according to the formula and fund us completely and provide us with the education that the kids need here in Effingham County.”

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