Gwinnett educators talk funding with legislators

LAWRENCEVILLE -- State legislators met with local K-12 and post-secondary education officials Monday to discuss continued and future funding for schools and institutions.

Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks told representatives from the Georgia General Assembly that the school district hoped to continue "providing students with a quality education" despite about $519 million in state funding cuts since 2003.

"(The cuts) have not gone without a price to pay" Wilbanks said. "As we look at the coming years we hope that is taken into consideration."

Wilbanks said this year GCPS has lost about $113 million in state level funding.

He added that there was a reduction of about $97 million in local property tax revenues for 2011.

The school system's budget for maintenance and operations is made up primarily of state money and property tax funding.

He said as the district's student population continues to grow "the district will not only have less money to operate but even more students to educate."

Added Wilbanks: "There are only so many ways we can continue to make budget reductions ... not only do we have less money to operate on but more children to serve."

GCPS Board Chairman Robert McClure agreed.

"It is very, very difficult to do the job we want to do right now," McClure said.

McClure indicated support for a constitutional amendment that would allow school districts to use a portion of revenues generated through the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for the operation of schools.

Each year, the school board adopts legislative priorities to let state lawmakers know which issues are of the most importance to the funding and effective operation of the school system.

Monday's meeting with legislators also allowed officials from Gwinnett County's higher education institutions to speak their piece.

David McCulloch, vice president of recruitment and economic development with Gwinnett Technical College, spoke about the institution's focus and funding levels.

McCulloch said the Technical College System of Georgia serves about 40 percent of the 500,000 students who attend public higher education institutions in Georgia.

"Despite that, (the technical college system) receives about 3 percent of the funding allotted to education," McCulloch said. "That limited funding we've received has made it more and more difficult to meet the talent needs of the workforce."

Workforce preparation and placement, McCulloch said, is Gwinnett Tech's biggest focus.

"We're a little bit different in terms of education and preparing our students," McCulloch said. "We have a very distinct focus on making sure that the students that graduate are prepared to enter the workforce."

Enrollment, McCulloch said, continues to climb, "and that means more jobs down the line. We want to continue to make a positive impact on the economy in Gwinnett."

A representative from Georgia Gwinnett College said the institution also has seen much positive growth: climbing from 118 students in 2006 to more than 8,000 students in 2011.

Eddie Beauchamp, vice president for facilities and operations at Georgia Gwinnett College, said the college is "growing and retaining students at positive rates."

Their funding from the state is about $35 million, while about $24 million comes from tuition.

Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, said he was pleased by reports from both Georgia Gwinnett and Gwinnett Tech. Millar's district includes Peachtree Corners.

"I'm seeing good trends," Millar said, adding that the numbers from both schools showed a good "return on investment."