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Buckner wants federal help with school shortfall

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Without financial help, Clayton County Public Schools is expected to lose $23 million in Full-Time Equivalency (FTE) funding from the state as a result of the 3,000 students who fled the school system because of its accreditation crisis. FTE funding is based on the number of students a school system has on its attendance rolls.

Gail Buckner, the State Senator-elect in District 44, suggested on Saturday -- during a meeting of county leaders organized by U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) -- that Scott should lobby for federal assistance to make sure the system's 49,000 students are adequately funded.

"When you get hit with a $23 million shortfall, you have to get creative in finding help wherever it may be," said Buckner. "My philosophy is that it never hurts to ask. If the answer is 'no,' then the next question is when can we petition again?"

While there is nothing prohibiting county leaders from asking the feds for help, Michael Andel, Rep. Scott's chief of staff, said it is unlikely Scott would be able to successfully lobby at the U.S. Capitol for funding to make up for the school system's shortfall. Andel said the approach would create a situation in which school systems around the country, with dwindling populations, would begin asking for the same help.

"It's a non-starter," he said. "It would take a long time to get in there, and even get into that discussion. That's not the way to go about getting funding.

"Their problem is that when they do get the 3,000 [students] back, there will be time before [FTE funding] will kick in," Andel said. "There is no way to plug that directly until they get more students, but that doesn't mean that we can't help them in other ways. "We're better off trying to identify specific programs we can help with."

Andel said Scott was successful, this year, in procuring $150,000 for the school system to assist with gang prevention programs. He said a proposed public-works, economic-stimulus package, which Congress will present to President-elect Barack Obama early next year, may also help the school system with some of its deferred maintenance projects.

There was at least a small bit of good news, in the wake of the meeting, however. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the school system's loss of SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) accreditation does not bar it from acquiring federal assistance.

"Funding from the U.S. Department of Education is not associated with public school accreditation," said Elaine Quesinberry, U.S. Department of Education spokesperson.

"There are no specific federal laws or regulations governing the recognition of associations that accredit primary and secondary schools, and the U.S. Department of Education has no oversight role with respect to school accreditation.

"States," she said, "are responsible for monitoring their local school districts and schools."

Charles White, a spokesperson Clayton Schools, said that based on Saturday's meeting, the school system may pursue different avenues to make up for the shortfall. Scott "gave us no hope" that federal funding would be available to help with the $23 million shortfall, he said. "We've been pretty much informed that there is no funding available."

Buckner, however, said she will continue to seek funding from all available sources. "There are other federal contacts we can make a case to, and I plan to continue to do that," she said. "We should not leave any stone unturned in this process."