Wilbanks asks legislators to up county funding

LAWRENCEVILLE - Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks emphasized the need Wednesday for funding increases to help the district accommodate its growing student enrollment. He presented the Gwinnett Board of Education's proposed 2006 Legislative Program to state delegates at an annual breakfast.

Wilbanks proposed to restore state funding lost due to austerity reductions over the past four years. The cuts have led to an estimated $87.7 million of losses in state revenue for Gwinnett County. During that time, about 25,000 new students enrolled in Gwinnett public schools, according to Wilbanks.

"I do want to make sure there is no doubt that when you have four years of reductions, it starts to take a tremendous toll," Wilbanks said. "That $87.7 million has really hurt us."

In his presentation, Wilbanks also urged legislators to delay implementation of mandated class-size reductions for schools. While they seem like a good idea, he said, they would only worsen overcrowding issues and cost the county $20 million.

Wilbanks also said state funding should be increased to offset the full cost of teacher salary increases and benefits.

"We're desperately trying to make sure we look at everything in our budget, cut everything we can out," Wilbanks said. "But you can only move so many buckets to move the leaks around before it catches up with you."

The school board reaffirmed its opposition to House Resolution 58, which would fund public education solely with a statewide sales tax. It would eliminate property taxes as a source of revenue for public education. Members of the board have criticized the proposal because sales taxes are typically more volatile, dependent on consumer spending. The proposal would also increase taxes for senior citizens and disabled Georgians, who are currently exempt from property taxes to support schools.

Legislators attending the event included state Reps. Brooks Coleman, Hugh Lloyd and Donna Sheldon and state Sens. Curt Thompson, Donald Balfour and Daniel Weber. School board chairman Daniel Seckinger said it was one of the most successful meetings he had attended with the legislative delegation.

"I would submit to you that one of the reasons Gwinnett County's education continues to be so great is our relationship with the county government," Seckinger said.

A question and answer session with the superintendent addressed the topics of childhood obesity, alternative schools and the high school drop-out rate. Board members and legislators discussed changing cultural norms and their impact on children. The consensus was that the onus of raising healthy, well-behaved children is not only on schools, but on the larger community.