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Wilbanks asks delegates for freedom in handling budget cuts

SUWANEE -- Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks asked Gwinnett County delegates to allow the school system the freedom to decide how to absorb any funding cuts made in the upcoming legislative session.

"We understand if you've got to cut X percent out of the budget," Wilbanks said during a Monday meeting with state representatives and senators. "But rather than telling us how to do that, we'd like you to allow us to decide how."

The annual meeting is a time when county leaders present their wish lists for the upcoming legislative session.

Wilbanks asked the delegates to preserve the constitutional authority of the local elected Board of Education and avoid passing legislation that erodes public education funding.

"Just like everyone else, we're faced with declining revenue," Wilbanks said. "Every source of revenue is down."

The school system's Investing in Educational Excellence, or IE2, Partnership Contract with the state has helped the district manage through these tough times, Wilbanks said. The contract allowed the school system to get waivers from 13 state mandates in exchange for increased accountability in student achievement.

Wilbanks encouraged the elected state officials to grant the same flexibility to other school districts in the state.

"Those are things that really make a difference," he said.

Georgia Gwinnett College President Daniel Kaufman urged the delegates to continue funding a line item in the budget that grants additional funding to the new college.

Funding for state colleges is determined by enrollment numbers that are two years old, but that formula can't support Georgia Gwinnett College's growing student population. As of Sept. 1, 3,027 students were enrolled at the Lawrenceville college, which opened in 2006, and about 600 more students are expected this spring.

"We have to begin to hire faculty and staff to sustain a student body that will conservatively be 5,000 in August," Kaufman said.

The college needs to hire 100 faculty members by August, Kaufman said.

Gwinnett Technical College President Sharon Bartels said the school is planning to break ground on a new life sciences building in April.

"I will be eternally grateful to you all for getting us that building," she said. "I really do appreciate your efforts on that."

The new building will allow Gwinnett Tech to expand its health science programs, which receive the most applicants each year.

With the capital project secured, Bartels said the college plans to start an intensive fund-raising campaign to generate the $5 million that will be needed for the first four years of operation for the new building.

"Beyond the life sciences building, what we see is a satellite campus," Bartels said. "We're not maxed out on our campus, but we're close."

Bartels said the college has looked at locations in Gwinnett County and in neighboring counties, including Walton and Barrow, but no decision has been made.