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Funding a challenge for BOE

By By Robert Blankenship, Special to The Advance
For many students and parents the past few years of proration and reduced funding may seem to have had no impact at local schools. But, members of the Escambia County Board of Education realize the impact as the threat of losing additional teachers becomes more of a possibility.
Each year, officials with the Alabama Department of Education review each school's attendance. From the enrollment numbers, the state decides how many teachers each school should be funded for. While attendance in county schools has steadily decreased over the past 10 years, so has funding for schools, leaving Escambia County with a surplus of teachers and only one way to pay them - out of local funds.
Three years ago, the county school system had approximately 35 teachers over the state-funded limit. That meant those 35 teachers were paid entirely with local funds. As enrollment dropped and proration declared, the number of teachers over the state's funding limit has continued to decrease. Now, the system is 14.6 teachers over and, if more funding does not become available, additional cuts in teacher units will be likely.
Superintendent Buck Powell. "It looks like we will have to cut more next year."
Based on last year's enrollment, the state awarded the system funding for 303.64 teaching units. But, in order to pay for the teachers the system currently has employed, the system must budget $1.8 million from local funds to complete salaries and benefits for school personnel.
When proration was initially called for FY 2001, the state's schools had already completed budgets and were several months into the fiscal year. In order to complete that year, Escambia County had to find an additional $1.2 million in order to get through the remainder of that year.
A state-mandated pay raise for all teachers along with an increase for benefits of all school employees did not help the situation.
Despite the raise, she said it is not the source of the problem.
For the county school system, there is little room for cuts. About 85 percent of the system's budget goes toward salaries and benefits. The other 15 percent goes toward books, supplies, utilities, maintenance and transportation. While transportation is an area of concern for school board officials, Powell said students have not been deprived of appropriate supplies and books.
While the state funds are approved for 303.64 teaching units, Powell said that is not a realistic number.
Another bad sign for the county is that this year's enrollment is down. With no hints of additional funding for next year, it is likely that more teachers will be cut next year.
Powell said some programs offered in Escambia County do not count toward enrollment. He said the Career Technical Center earns a principal and half the cost for a counselor (the other half comes out of a federal career-technical grant). Turtle Point Science Center and the schools' gifted programs are not counted toward enrollment. Even McCall-Pollard School gets only enough credits to pay for half of a principal. The other half is paid out of local funds. Also, the salary for the system's superintendent comes out of local funds.
Powell said any future cuts in teachers would likely have an impact on the quality of eduction in Escambia. Recent efforts to offer students more alternatives in education would likely be the first to suffer.
But, Powell said when, or if, the time comes to decide which programs will go these may be the first on the chopping block.
Powell said the system has an abundance of quality teachers and that he hoped all of them would be long-time employees with the school system.
Robert Blankenship is a contributing writer for The Advance.