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Proration taking its toll locally:

By Staff
Powell tells Rotary that program cuts, school closures possible
By Paul Keane
Publisher
With proration really taking its toll, Escambia County Superintendent of Schools Melvin "Buck" Powell says either additional funds need to be raised or programs need to be slashed.
As a last resort, Powell is not ruling out the possibility of closing some schools, mentioning Huxford Elementary and McCall as possible targets in an attempt to cut expenses and keep the system financially solvent.
"This is our third year of proration," Powell told members of the Atmore Rotary Club Monday. "Each year, we've had between $1.3 and $1.5 million cut from our state funding.
"At the same time, the Oil Severance Tax has had a decrease of $500,000 a year. That totals to nearly $2 million in lost funding each of the last three years. We're hurting for money right now.
"When I came here back in 2000, we had 38 teachers above what the state was funding. Those positions were funded with local dollars. Now, because of the cuts, we are down to 14 teaching positions. The problem is that you can't pay for the extra teachers if you don't have the money."
With 633 employees and a monthly payroll of nearly $2 million, Powell said proration and other funding cuts are be disastrous to a school system.
"We have a $32 million budget and only $30-and-a-half million in revenue," Powell said. "We've cut all the fat that we can cut."
Powell said that an average of the top 10 school systems in the state provide an average of $3,335 per pupil in local funding. The bottom 10 districts in the state provide an average of $454 per pupil in local funding. Escambia County provides $951.13 per pupil in local funding.
"Does money make a difference," Powell asked the club. "We use the SAT-9, which will be the SAT-10 this year, to measure ourselves against other school districts across the country.
"The top 10 schools in average funding scored 21 percentile points higher than the bottom 10. On the ACT, there was a four percentile difference, and with the fifth grade reading tests, they were 23 percentile points higher. Does money make a difference? I think it does."
Powell said that money needs to come from local funding, as state and federal programs are either cutting back or are earmarked for specific programs and cannot be used for other funding. He gave the example that many teacher aids are funded through federal monies while nearly 85 percent of state funding is earmarked for teacher payroll.
"Proration is going to hurt us, and we'll lose some programs," Powell said. "We might even have to seriously look at closing some schools such as Huxford and McCall. The very last thing we would want to do is close any schools, though."
Powell said that raising the countywide sales tax by one cent or increasing the ad valorem – or property – tax would help alleviate the problems. He said his office has not ruled out having to borrow money to make it through the rest of this fiscal year.
"It would be difficult to make more cuts," he said. "We could close Turtle Point, but that would only save $150,000 and many people don't want that closed. We could close the gifted program – and we have more than 60 students who are part of that program – but it would only save $150,000.
"The main solution is to raise our local funding. The permanent and long-term solution would be to raise ad valorem taxes because it would give us a more stable funding source. Right now, we are tied too closely to the economy, and we suffer when the economy is down.
"I don't think the legislature or the federal government is going to help us. It's going to take local government and local funding to help us solve this problem on a permanent basis."