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At-risk funding sets off budget debate

By By Sherry Digmon
Advance Staff Writer
What is usually a routine meeting was anything but routine Friday afternoon as the Escambia County (Ala.) Board of Education held the first of two public budget hearings.
A disagreement over funding for the county's alternative school and career development school ensued between some of the schools' personnel and Superintendent Dr. Margaret Breland-Bradley.
Bradley explained that the state is mandating that 20 percent of at-risk funds be offered to community service agencies to provide after-school and summer programs for at-risk students in grades K-12. That allocation took $59,000 directly off the top of the alternative school funding. In addition, an alternative school in the second year of operation is no longer considered an innovative use of funding. That state guideline mandated that the school board could no longer fund 50 percent of the alternative school principal's salary through state or federal funding.
Bradley suggested that local funding could be used to maintain the alternative and career development school.
Alternative school principal Guy Sawyer was in attendance as was alternative school teacher Al Jokela, career development teacher Jaimie Odom and three former students of the programs.
Jokela said the school system stands to lose students and money because the alternative school students will not go back into the regular classroom. The system will lose funding from their attendance. But even worse, he said, the students will not be served.
Odom said the students in the alternative and career development schools were "not out robbing and stealing." He questioned the costs. There is no transportation cost and no building cost, he said.
Bradley explained that the students who will most benefit from this shift in funding are the 2,513 children considered at-risk in the county's schools.
At one point, Board Chairman A.D. Johnson said, "She's telling you over and over again that it's not our fault."
Former Superintendent Curtis Ray Parker said, "You can use foundation program funds (matching funds) for any program. You've got to be understanding and innovative. You can shift back to the local system."
Bradley agreed.
More than an hour into the meeting, board member Mike Goolsby asked how much in school board funds would be needed to keep the program. Bradley replied more than $70,000 would be required.
Moving to the budget itself, Parker said, "This is a $1 million deficit budget."
Business Manager Julie Madden replied, "Yes, the board is aware of that. In March, a presentation (about the budget deficit) was made to the board."
Johnson and Goolsby were the only two board members present.
The second public hearing on the budget meeting is set for Monday, 4 p.m., in the Brewton central office. A special meeting will follow immediately.