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Education leaders talk funding, growth with legislators

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Local education leaders met Monday with state legislators to talk about enrollment growth and future funding for schools and institutions from K-12 to post-secondary education.

During the annual pre-session legislative delegation meeting, Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks told delegates from the Capitol that the student population of GCPS is still growing, despite being underfunded by the state.

"We understand you can't squeeze blood out of a turnip, but we're hoping the state can at least develop a plan to get back to fully funding (the Qualified Basic Education formula)," Wilbanks said.

The state formula is used to determine the amount of state education funds a public school district will earn annually.

District staff reported during a Nov. 15 GCPS board meeting that under the QBE formula the school system has seen $632.4 million in reductions since 2003.

As a result, Wilbanks said, the district has reduced staff support to schools. He said there are currently 1,900 less teachers in GCPS than there were in 2007, yet the student population continues to increase.

"We've had to increase class sizes to manage it," Wilbanks said. "It is something we are very concerned about."

At least one legislator shared the concern of the GCPS superintendent.

"QBE is broken," said Rep. Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth. "We need to bring it into the 21st century and fund it ... what Alvin's asking for is to fund QBE at what it's supposed to be funded ... we're looking at trying to do that."

Following Wilbanks was Sharon Bartels, Gwinnett Technical College president, who told state legislators that the institution continues to focus on job placement. She said "there will be 27,000 new jobs between now and 2013 in health sciences."

"The life sciences and health sciences areas are where our focus has been," Bartels said. She talked about the college's new Life Sciences Center, a 140,000-square-foot learning space for students.

In addition, Bartels discussed progress on the North Fulton campus, which got the green light in September when the state technical college board gave permission for the institution to build a new satellite location. Plans call for a building, which could serve up to 10,000 students.

Following Bartels, Georgia Gwinnett College President Daniel J. Kaufman updated the state delegation.

He told them that the college is "literally out of space. We will have a pause year until the science center is built."

The college has plans for an allied health and science building, which could ensure the capacity for growth at GGC.

With 9,350 students currently, Kaufman projected that within the next four years the institution could have as many as 15,000 if growth trends continue.