Monday, December 14, 2009

Muscogee County Schools Braces for Influx of New Students

The Muscogee County School District is in the eye of a growth hurricane. The last Base Realignment and Closure assured that nearby Fort Benning would receive 30,000 additional troops and their families from the Armor School at Fort Knox, Ky., which is closing. The Columbus/Muscogee system is expecting more than 4,000 students over the next two years – a large influx for an already sizable school district (33,000 students).

So when Muscogee County voters approved a renewal of the education SPLOST in a special September vote, the district’s chief financial officer, Sharon Adams, was relieved.

“It’s strictly for bricks and mortar and technology,” Adams says of the five-year, $223 million SPLOST. “We’re extremely lucky the voters approved this. We’re going to be flooded with new students.”

July’s last-minute budget cuts took about $8.4 million from the Muscogee district budget, and Adams says she’s waiting for the other shoe to drop in January.

“The cuts are having a real impact for a system like Muscogee’s, which is going to see quick, massive growth because of BRAC,” says Garrett, who has developed a reputation as an education finance expert. “But imagine what will happen to a place like Chattahoochee County right next door. They’re going to pick up some of those kids. How will they handle such a massive influx?”

Most of Chattahoochee’s land mass is made up of Fort Benning. The entire school district has about 1,000 students, and a system budget of about $9.6 million. Superintendent James Martin figures his district has lost about $500,000 in state funding.

“The austerity cuts have been rough,” he says. “And with over half of the county comprised of Fort Benning, that has a real effect on the amount of local property taxes we get.”

Chattahoochee schools do get “im-pact aid” from the military, but Martin says that money usually arrives a year to 18 months after the kid gets there.

But like Shaw in White County, Martin has been planning ahead. He’s been trying to get costs under control since arriving at his post two years ago. This year they cut field trips out of the budget; supplies are purchased on an as-needed basis only; athletic teams are playing closer to home, and overtime has been cut. But they haven’t had to eliminate any positions yet.

“We’re on a shoestring budget,” Martin says. “And I’m holding on tight to the shoestrings. But if they come, we’re going to educate them. That’s our approach.”

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