Since writing about how someone tampered with the education trust fund budget on Nov. 29, others in the media have paid attention. Stories have appeared on a Mobile TV station, Mobile weekly newspaper, the Decatur Daily, the Montgomery Advertiser and on other media outlets.
The latest I know about is this editorial in the Dec. 7 edition of the Montgomery Advertiser.
I have continued to research this issue and talk to people who were involved. Here is what we know about how one brand new small school system got $2.3 million, while 47 other systems with 310,000 students were shortchanged $1.2 million.
For years the budget has included money for faster growing systems to help them meet immediate needs. This is referred to as “current units,” with a unit being the approximate amount needed to provide a teacher–about $85,000 currently.
The 2008 budget had $42.2 million for current units. But it has been far less ever since. Whatever the amount, it was always divided on a pro rata basis among qualified systems.
Not this year.
The little community of Pike Road in east Montgomery County opened its own school system this year. They have 1,100 students.
The system is in Senator Dick Brewbaker’s district and he told The Montgomery Advertiser he wanted $400,000 for it. So when the budget went from the Senate to the House, it had $400,000 for Pike Road.
But the House Ways & Means Education committee removed it. Bill Poole of Tuscaloosa chairs this committee and told me we have enough systems in the state and he is not interested in giving incentives for new ones.
No one can recall language in the budget ever attached to this expenditure. But the House added language directing that current units should also include funding for new charter schools. (Even though we were assured last spring when the charter school bill was passed that they would not impact funding for traditional public schools.)
After House approval the bill went to conference committee. Conferees were Senators Trip Pittman, Del Marsh and Quinton Ross and House members Bill Poole, Steve McMillan and Rod Scott.
After the conference report, the bill got unanimous approval in both House and Senate. But somehow a few words got added to the current unit language in the final version:
“The above appropriation includes funds for start-up public charter schools and start-up public school systems in the first year of operation which shall be funded at the full amount of the average Foundation Program cost per unit.”
Pike Road was the only system to qualify. So rather than a prorated share, they got $2,372,215. Considerably more than the $400,000 Senator Brewbaker wanted.
A howl went up from the 47 slighted systems when this info became public. Since the Pike Road allocation came “off the top,” the other systems split $7.2 million instead of all systems dividing $9.6 million.
Senator Pittman, who chaired the Senate Finance & Taxation Education committee at the time, said that systems had no reason to complain since they were getting more current use funding this year than last.
This rationale makes no sense. Senator Pittman sells tractors in Baldwin County. So say last year I bought one last year for $50,000. I want to buy another this year, but the demand is high and he now wants $75,000. I offer $62,500 and tell him that is more than I paid last year and he should be happy.
My guess is that he would not be happy. And neither are the 47 school systems that got shortchanged $1.2 million, including Pittman’s own Baldwin County system which should have received an additional $81,000.
Had this been handled equitably, Pike Road would still have gotten $1.1 million, far more than Senator Brewbaker first wanted.
In the grand scheme of things, $9.3 million is a wee little bit of nearly $6 billion. But for a teacher who has spent $500 out of her pocket on supplies and for a rural principal wondering how to pay the phone bill, pennies are precious.
There are 310,000 students in the 47 systems who lost $1.2 million. But as we see so often, they don’t matter when politics is at play.