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School funding sticking point in mid-year budget

ATLANTA - Both House and Senate budget writers say they support spending more money on education.

But the different path they want to take to achieve that goal promises to be the biggest obstacle in the way of an early agreement on the mid-year budget.

The Senate Appropriations Committee Tuesday yanked a $31 million increase in equalization grants to Georgia school districts that the House had added to Gov. Sonny Perdue's mid-year budget request earlier this month.

If senators get their way, 16 suburban districts across Georgia - including Gwinnett County Public Schools - would lose money during this school year.

At issue is the equalization formula the state has been using for more than 20 years to help poorer school districts saddled with low tax bases.

Thanks in part to changes lawmakers approved in 2000, the formula has tilted more in recent years toward wealthier suburban districts. That, in turn, is driving equalization formula spending higher because of soaring student enrollment in those districts.

Now, Perdue intends to push legislation that would change the formula again and steer the program back toward poorer schools. As a result, he put $30.7 million less in his mid-year budget recommendation than the state would have to spend under the current formula.

On Tuesday, the Senate committee sided with the governor.

"Do we take a system like Gwinnett that is wealthy, college-educated and has a great school system, and give it a huge increase, or do we focus on poorer school systems?" said Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, R-Savannah.

The Senate, however, isn't proposing taking those funds away from education and spending them somewhere else.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Jack Hill said the Senate proposal is to move the funds from the mid-year budget and include them instead in the 2009 spending plan. Hill, R-Reidsville, said that would give lawmakers more time to decide the best way to spread those education dollars around.

"We don't necessarily disagree with any decision," he said. "We just want to have as many options as possible in '09."

But House Majority Leader Jerry Keen said students in the 16 school districts that would share the $30.7 million increase in equalization grants the House is proposing need that money this year.

"Our kids are in school now," said Keen, R-St. Simons Island. "They could use those resources now."

Gwinnett schools would receive by far the largest allocation from those funds, $14.1 million.

House and Senate leaders also disagree over how to handle $40 million Perdue requested in the mid-year budget for technology projects in the schools and $25 million the governor proposed for school buses.

But budget writers in both legislative chambers did sign off on some other major priorities Perdue has recommended, including $53 million to launch a statewide trauma care network and $40 million to build reservoirs as protection against future droughts.

The full Senate will take up the mid-year budget Thursday.

After that, it will be on to a conference committee, where negotiators for the two sides will try to reach an agreement.