Chickasaw City Councilman Adam Bourne, who is running for a contested seat on the State School Board, believes a change to a small line item in this year’s education budget is taking money away from local schools.
Last week Bourne accused Montgomery County legislators of “slipping in language to the education appropriations bill” making it possible for a new school system in the Pike Road community to benefit from from a substantial amount of funds used to pay for “current units.”
Because education budgets are built on student enrollment figures from the previous year, funding for “current units” has for some time provided school systems with funding to pay for additional teachers when student growth increases to the point it requires additional “teaching units.”
Bourne and others said the funds have been used since the legislature created the state Education Foundation Program in 1995. Recently, areas like Baldwin County that have seen sustained growth have used the funds to hire additional teachers after the system has already received regular state funding.
However, in 2015, a few extra lines in the legislation extended “current units” funds to “start-up public charter schools and start-up public school systems in the first year of operation.”
“Because school system funding lags a year behind on how money is allocated, there is an appropriation called ‘current units’ that is supposed to be used to help faster-growing systems keep up with their needs,” Bourne wrote. “In the past, these monies were split equitably.
“However, this year someone slipped wording into the bill saying that new city school systems would be fully funded.”
Because charter programs weren’t allowed until 2016, the only system that benefited from the language added this year was the newly created Pike Road School District on the outskirts of Montgomery.
Accordingly, the language specifically says the first-year systems would be funded at the “full amount of the average foundation program cost per unit” — giving them priority over other growing systems that split the remaining funds.
In the FY 2016 Current Unit Allocations, $9.6 million was up for grabs between the 48 systems experiencing increased student enrollment. In the Mobile area, that includes Baldwin County schools and the city systems in Satsuma, Saraland and Chickasaw.
Baldwin County received $468,088, which is more than many other systems. Dale County Schools received the second-largest allocation at $656,816. Yet, in its first year of operation, Pike Road netted $2,372,215.
With a starting enrollment of just over 1,000 students, Bourne said by his math it equates to more than $2,000 per student. In contrast, he said, the seven school systems in South Alabama’s District 1 received an average of $21.65 for each of the 42,397 students represented.
“This is a travesty, taking funding from kids all over South Alabama while fully funding a school system in Montgomery County that serves mostly the children of lobbyists, political consultants and senior state officials,” Bourne said. “Someone needs to make this right.”
John Wilson, chief financial officer for Baldwin County public schools, said the additional allocation to Pike Road pulls from a foundation program that has been underfunded since the recession of 2008.
Wilson said a fully funded teacher unit is currently around $84,000, which includes salary, insurance and other benefits. That’s the level of funding Pike Road received for each of its current units, but Wilson said the rest of the school systems had each of their respective units funded at only $33,944 per teacher.
According to Wilson, less funding for additional units means fewer teachers and, ultimately, larger class sizes.
“It’s basically hurts every other school system in the state to fully fund these type of appropriations, and they’re coming out of a line item that was never meant to be used for that purpose,” Wilson said. “[Baldwin County Schools] are growing every single year, and it’s a continual burden to try and find the local funding for what the state doesn’t give you for student enrollment growth.”
Bourne is currently vying for a seat on the state board of education against Matthew Brown, who is seeking his first election to the body after being appointed by Gov. Robert Bentley in July.
Baldwin County resident Carl Myrick is also vying for the same position on the state board.
In his recent press release, Bourne said he hopes to address current-unit allocations before next year, when new charter programs will likely pull even more funding from existing school systems.
His opponent Brown responded online with a letter to the systems in District 1 and some comments on his professional Facebook page. While he said the process remains “intrinsically unfair,” he praised Alabama lawmakers for increasing appropriations to the program at all in year marked by funding shortfalls.
“Do we have lots of room to improve? Yes, but we owe a debt of gratitude to our legislators for deftly managing a potential education funding crisis during the legislative session and still somehow increasing the current-units line item,” Brown wrote. “Piling criticisms on our senators and representatives for their hard work will not help us accomplish our goals moving forward.”
According to Brown, local systems, including Chickasaw and Baldwin, received more money per new student than they received the prior year. He also mentioned the effort to prevent the Education Trust Fund from being combined with the general fund, something he said State Sen. Trip Pittman of Montrose and State Rep. Bill Poole of Tuscaloosa helped make possible.
Brown also pointed out all of the allocations were made before he was appointed to the state board of education. According to the numbers, Baldwin saw a $126,000 increase and Chickasaw gained more than $78,000.
Still, both Bourne and Wilson say sending those funds directly to a new school system isn’t what they intended, regardless of whether individual districts saw an increase in funding this year.
Bourne also said the issue particularly “hit home” with him because of his involvement with starting the city system in Chickasaw, which broke away from the Mobile County Public School System in 2012.
“I was very involved in starting the new Chickasaw school system several years ago, and no one ever gave us a sweet deal like this,” Bourne wrote. “The Chickasaw system has 100 students less than Pike Road and while they are getting $2.3 million this year, we’re getting $135,776.”