Educators protest unfunded mandates

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 17, 2000

Managing Editor

Feb. 16, 2000 10 PM

Leaders in Southeast Alabama school districts feel that unfunded government mandates tie their hands in making decisions at their schools and cost them dollars that could better be spent providing educational opportunities for students.

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Nineteen school systems in District 3, including Pike County and the city of Troy participated in a press conference held earlier this week in Ozark to "inform the public about this dilemma," said Troy School Superintendent Hank Jones.

"These mandates come through and often we are told by the federal and state government that they are funded through our ‘Other Current Expense’ category, but there’s only so much that fund can bear," Jones said. "We are saying that there has got to be a closer look at these mandates in order for us to provide service to all of our students and do our best to educate the children."

Jones said he and other superintendents find themselves without the funds to meet the demands of state and federal laws, or are forced to deplete reserve funds as they seek to prevent tax increases on residents.

"We want the public to know and understand that when a mandate comes through, we have to do it," Jones said. "A lot of times, we just don’t have the dollars and this is the primary reason school systems are depleting their reserves."

Jones and other superintendents in the area are frustrated about the predicament.

According to a press release written by the superintendents at the 19 school systems, the number of unfunded mandates has been escalating rapidly since 1995.

"Our school systems have faced many unfunded mandates over the years, but never to the level that has occurred since 1995 through today," the release states. "In the last five years, we have collectively seen our funds balances decrease by $8,139,925.74."

Some of the mandates that have been passed that the superintendents pointed out include fringe benefits for employees and insurance.

Jones said that once insurance and fringe benefits were paid on a state level, but have recently shifted to a local level, without funding sources.

Child Nutrition Program funding was also transferred to local school districts. Primarily based on payroll expense for employees, the program called for pay increases that were met through local funding as opposed to state funding.

Other cost factors including the shift of teacher payroll to 100 percent local costs, a mandated four by four curriculum (four courses in each of four subjects) which required additional teacher expense, the mandated advanced diploma that all schools must now offer, mandated vocational programs, pay raise bills, and the pupil to teacher ratio reduction all contribute to the problems the schools have incurred, the press release states.

"The state will say that these programs fall into the OCE (other current expense) allocation given to each school district," Jones said. "But they have to understand that this fund can’t be a catch-all for every program or law that is passed. Eventually the money dries up."

Jones said he believes his district was hit hardest by the teacher to pupil reduction and the payroll and fringe benefits increases.

"The pupil to teacher ratio was by far the biggest unfunded mandate we have faced," he said. "Though I agree that classroom sizes should be smaller, I also believe that schools have to have access to the funds to do this. This mandate came without funding."

Jones believes that as more mandates come from the state, school districts have less ability to spend money in areas administrators feel are most important to the school because of laws that require certain expenses in other areas.

"What happens is that we are left with all of these things we have to do to satisfy these mandates and our money is consumed," Jones said. "We don’t have funds left over to do the things we feel would benefit the students."

Jones and his peers want the state to take a close look at the educational bills that are before them before agreeing to pass more unfunded mandates.

"This is something we are all struggling with," Jones said. "We want people to understand that these mandates are costly to our schools."

Others in attendance included Dr. John Key from Pike County Schools and representatives from other school districts including Opp, Andalusia, Dothan, Houston County, Henry County, Eufala, Barbour County, Dale County, Daleville, Ozark, Geneva, Enterprise, Elba, Coffee County, Covington County and Crenshaw County.