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Budget deal restores equalization grants to schools

ATLANTA - Legislative negotiators reached agreement Wednesday on a mid-year budget that would restore most of $30 million in grants to "low-wealth" school districts cut by Gov. Sonny Perdue.

The money would go to 16 fast-growing systems primarily in the Atlanta suburbs, with Gwinnett County Public Schools receiving nearly half of the pot.

The mid-year spending plan, hammered out after weeks of sporadic talks, will go to the full House and Senate today for final votes.

The agreement, approved by a joint conference committee, would restore $20 million in equalization grants to the mid-year budget, which covers state spending through the end of June.

The House is proposing to put the other $10 million in next year's budget, said Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Equalization grants are state funds aimed at helping local school systems that aren't spending as much per student as others, often because enrollment growth is outstripping their tax bases.

Perdue proposed the cut to partially offset a looming record jump in equalization formula funding of $110 million. His budget request would have curbed the increase to about $80 million.

Gwinnett schools would have absorbed $14 million of the hit, followed by the Paulding County system at $5.2 million and Henry County schools at $4.4 million.

In justifying his recommendation, the governor argued that the equalization formula has gotten skewed in recent years toward wealthier school districts that the program wasn't intended to serve.

But officials in the affected school systems and their advocates at the Capitol say that's a mistaken perception.

"Everybody thinks places like Gwinnett and Henry are suburban enclaves with upper-middle-class folks," said Herb Garrett, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association. "The majority of those school districts' students now are minorities."

Throughout the legislative debate over the mid-year budget, the House has been the stronger champion of fully funding the equalization formula.

The Senate voted last month to take the $30 million out of the mid-year spending plan and put the money in the 09 budget as part of a broader debate over education spending.

House negotiators eventually agreed to split the difference by keeping part of the money in this year's budget and earmarking the rest for next year.

Besides the equalization formula, the biggest disagreement between the House and Senate was over funding the state's network of public defenders.

The two sides settled on $2.7 million for the mid-year budget, less than the House wanted but more than the Senate supported.

Harbin said he's been assured that will be enough to get the system through June 30.

Altogether, the mid-year budget adds about $265 million to the 2008 spending plan lawmakers passed last spring.

Among the major new spending initiatives are $53 million to launch a statewide trauma care network and $40 million to build reservoirs as protection against future droughts.