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Schools caught in three-way squeeze

By By Connie Nowlin Managing editor
When Kmart pulled out of Atmore, it left a hole in the town. People were put out of work, and residents had to change their shopping habits.
But the schools were hit hard, too, because the city had been giving about $250,000 a year to them out of its coffers, according to the city clerk's office.
When that revenue source ended, it kicked an already suffering school system right in the pocketbook.
"We lost an art teacher and program with the cut in the sales tax last year," said Rachel Patterson Elementary principal Beth Drew.
"That means fewer dollars in instructional money because I'm having to pay a library aide out of federal funds, when it was paid by city funds."
Drew has had to deal with the cuts in local, county and state funding to schools. So have other principals around the county.
The county has cut some 30 teacher positions already. They had been paid by local funds, made up of oil severance tax monies collected over the years. As the oil in Escambia County has dried up, so has that source of income.
The school board will ask for an increase in the ad valorem taxes Dec. 9. If it does not pass, the consequences include closing some schools. That will mean Rachel Patterson will have to absorb many of the displaced students and some of the teachers.
Not only that, but now that the state is tightening its belt further, another 30 jobs may be eliminated next year.
There are nine teachers without tenure at Patterson. They would all be lost if the cuts have to be made.
"I don't want to lose any of my teachers, much less all of them," Drew said.
Right now, Patterson has one teacher for each five children in reading class.
"If I lose nine teachers, small groups are a thing of the past," she said.
In this school of 518 children, this year there were no library enhancement funds. Before cuts were made, the school was in line for more than $5,000. Most of the money would have been spent on books for the children. Drew said books get lost, they get damaged, and she loves it when books are simply worn out from use by the students. But now there is no money to replace those books that have been loved to death.
"And you aren't supposed to judge a book by its cover, but children do. If it's not pretty, they won't pick it up and read it," she said.
There is also no money for accelerated reader quizzes.
And the kindergarten will go without new computers.
The school could do a lot if the ad valorem package passes.
"I'd love to put the art program back in place," she said. "We could continue small class sizes. "
But Drew also knows that residents have to understand the scope of the situation.
"I hope people won't see this as just something to help children in the schools now. The future of Atmore and Escambia County is dependent on well-educated children. We've got to do everything we can to educate each child to his potential. I don't want to lose that over $100."