The local tax money Bulloch County spends annually per student in its 15 public schools varies from $1,087 at Brooklet Elementary School to $3,660 at Portal Middle High School, according to a chart seen by the Board of Education last week.
These are not just differences between elementary, middle and high schools as such. Statesboro High School, by far the largest with a full-time equivalent, or FTE, count of 1,607 students, is one of the lower-funded schools per student, at $1,209 of local taxes per FTE. Southeast Bulloch High, receiving $1,368 from local taxes for each of its counted 702 students, is closer to the middle.
Per-student local spending at Mattie Lively Elementary School, $2,724, is more than double that at Brooklet, Langston Chapel, Mill Creek or Nevils elementary school, according to the spreadsheet presented last week to the Board of Education by Chief Financial Officer Troy Brown.
"In no way am I here tonight trying to point out, trying to pick on or say we're spending too much up here or we're not spending enough down here," Brown told the board Jan. 29. "The community made the decision years ago that they wanted community schools."
By community schools, educators mean often-smaller schools that maintain a neighborhood identity. Differences in school size, resulting in economies of scale for larger schools, are one factor in the funding differences, Superintendent Charles Wilson said.
But size differences cannot explain all of the variance in funding. For example, Nevils Elementary, a rural school with 403 students, has per-child local funding of $1,288, while in-town, 500-student Sallie Zetterower Elementary is getting $2,096 per child; 355-student Portal Elementary, $2,455 per child; and rural 322-student Stilson Elementary, $2,254.
"You see the economies of scale at work, and you see all kinds of odd things," Wilson told the board.
Brown gave the report as Bulloch County Schools prepares for its application to become an Investing in Educational Excellence, or IE2, school district. In exchange for planning and making progress toward student achievement goals, the district will obtain waivers from state rules.
The waivers will be used to give the schools' leadership teams, headed by the principals, more flexibility in how local and state money is spent.
"We keep hearing things about, we keep having conversations about, 'We need more teachers,'" Wilson said. "Well, it's not more teachers now, because, remember, we're allocating resources to schools in terms of IE2, and it's dollars. They decide what they're going to do with them."
A look at spending equity is not mandated for the IE2 process. Instead, Bulloch County Schools is writing its own charter.
"But it is an opportunity for change, and we know that we want to see the principals have the resources that they need and the ability to effect a change with the dollars they receive," Brown said after the meeting.
The per-student numbers in Brown's report included local funding only. For example, state funding covers $2.54 million of Williams James Middle School's $3.5 million in salaries and operating costs. So the school receives $979,550 in local funding, and this, divided by its 639 FTE count, gives $1,531 per student.
The average per-student local funding at the nine elementary schools was $1,639. Among the three middle schools, the average was $1,272. Among the three high schools, the average was $1,609.
Brown's chart showed the projected costs of bringing the below-average funded schools up to the average for each bracket: elementary, middle or high. The chart suggested no reduction for the above-average funded schools, with these marked "hold harmless."
In the "hold harmless" category are Stilson, Portal, Sallie Zetterower and Mattie Lively elementary schools, along with William James Middle and Portal Middle High.
For bringing the nine below-average funded schools up to the bracket averages, the chart showed a $2.3 million cost.
"We decided the benchmark, for the purposes of this discussion, should be average," Wilson told board members. "It could be more or less, for budgeting purposes."
The board could even hold the schools at their current funding levels, he said.
"The bottom line is, we just need to know what we have to work with and what the direction of this board is," Wilson said.
2 mills mentioned
This topic merged with discussion about a list of building projects. Paying an estimated $2.5 million for the top 12 projects with sales tax money will require shifting $500,000 per year in classroom technology purchases to the general fund.
So this, plus the $2.3 million for bringing lower-funded schools up to the averages, would mean $2.8 million in new spending.
Board of Education member Steve Hein asked for the effect on the property tax rate.
"I need to have that information," Hein said. "Let's have that very uncomfortable discussion."
After saying that the board appeared to be arriving at a decision point, Wilson answered, "I think, roughly, you're talking about 2 mills of tax."
But he did not make a recommendation for a tax increase.
In an interview Wednesday, Wilson said the per-child funding comparison was meant as a "conversation starter" toward a scientific approach for distributing state and local money to the schools and that he never meant to make the current average the goal.
He repeated a statement he had made during the meeting about he and the board having to either fund what they have said they are going to do in the school system's strategic plan or cut it.
"What I'm saying is this: We need to be aware of where we are, and I'm also saying that if there is going to be any discussion about additional resources to the schools, there are only two places it can come from, state money and local money," Wilson said. "And the only local money lever we have is the tax millage rate."
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.