By Dave Williams
ATLANTA - Only one substantive issue in Georgia's mid-year budget separates Gov. Sonny Perdue and the General Assembly.
But it's a can of worms that could affect students in many of the state's fastest-growing counties, and points to a philosophical divide between the Republican governor and GOP legislative leaders.
The House passed Perdue's mid-year budget request just more than a week ago, with little fanfare over virtually everything in it.
But lawmakers objected to the governor's plan to cut $30.7 million from a school funding formula designed to give "low-wealth" school systems an extra boost from the state.
Perdue's proposal would affect 16 rapidly growing school districts across Georgia, from Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale in metro Atlanta to the suburbs of Augusta, Savannah and Albany.
Of the nearly $31 million reduction, Gwinnett County Public Schools would be hit hardest by far, receiving $14.1 million less in "equalization" grants under the governor's recommendation than if he had left the formula alone.
"These schools are all doing a great job," said Rep. Ben Harbin (R-Evans), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, after the House voted to put that money back into the mid-year budget. "They've got great test scores, so why do we want to punish them?"
While the Senate has yet to weigh in on the House's action, at least one Republican leader in the upper chamber appeared sympathetic last week to the House position.
"We like what they've done," said Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, (R-Savannah.) "We think it's a valid proposal and we're comfortable with looking at that."
Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley said the governor recommended the cut after seeing some disturbing numbers. The equalization formula was about to skyrocket to $570 million next year - about a $110 million increase - unless Perdue acted to rein it in, Brantley said.
Beyond the numbers, the spokesman said, school systems in relatively affluent counties have begun receiving large equalization grants in recent years. The formula, established more than 20 years ago, was supposed to help schools in poor, rural counties, he said.
To reverse that trend, the governor and his staff are working on legislation to accompany his mid-year budget proposal that would change the methodology for classifying low-wealth districts by adding an income component.
"It would give more weight to counties with median incomes below the state average," Brantley said. "A couple million dollars in a small rural county would make a bigger difference than in the wealthier suburban counties."
Dean Alford, of Conyers, chairman of the Governor's Education Finance Task Force, said his panel has been wrestling with how to change the equalization formula.
"The current methology for calculating wealth has its faults," he said. "If you follow the formula, it drives you to a conclusion that doesn't look logical."
But the proposal's critics argue that the school systems benefiting under the current equalization formula aren't as wealthy as most people perceive.
Herb Garrett, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association, said suburban districts are rapidly becoming more diverse, and many minority families moving into those communities have low incomes.
For example, he said, 40 percent of the students in Henry County schools are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
Garrett also noted that the equalization formula was changed eight years ago to reward counties willing to tax themselves at a higher level to support their schools, since that would lessen the burden on the state.
Many of the districts that would be affected by the proposed equalization cut have high school-tax rates, he said.
"Now that some of these systems are starting to benefit from it, they think it's a bad idea," he said.
John Brown, director of the House Budget Office, said those so-called affluent suburban school districts are actually spending less per pupil than the state average, a consequence of their budgets failing to keep pace with their rapid enrollment growth.
"We say per-capita income doesn't have anything to do with this," he said. "Income isn't available to schools as a tax."
Besides the philosophical disagreement over what should constitute a low-wealth school district, opponents also question the timing of the governor's recommendation.
Harbin said changing the equalization formula now when Alford's task force isn't expected to finish its work on a complete overhaul of school funding in Georgia until next year would be unwelcome piecemeal reform.
"I don't agree with changing that formula now," Harbin said. "Let's look at the whole thing."
But Brantley said the state can't afford to wait even another year, not with the 24-percent increase that would occur in the equalization formula if the governor and legislature don't act now.
"There aren't very many programs in the state budget that increase that much year after year," Brantley said. "It's not sustainable. If we can fix it, the idea is to do it while we can."