Karl Douglass: Education by numbers

August 11, 2013 

Aaron Cohn Middle School opened to great fanfare this past week. It is a beautiful facility with great leadership, built in a part of town that has experienced measurable growth over the past few years.

According to news reports, Aaron Cohn Middle School opened with 477 students. The base school size for state funding is 624 students. So our newest middle school opened without enough students to earn full funding from the state of Georgia.

Obviously, the student population at Aaron Cohn Middle School can grow. In fact, it probably has grown since the first day of school. But the redistricting plan that moved students to the new school by adjusting the attendance zones for Blackmon, Fort and Midland middle schools only projected to produce a student population of 574 students at the school this year. 574 is fewer than 624.

That redistricting plan also projected an adjusted enrollment of 593 students for Fort Middle School this school year. 593 is fewer than 624.

The bottom line is this: When the district projected its middle school population for 2013-2014, it estimated 7,088 students; 7,088 students generate enough state funding for 11 middle schools. With the addition of Aaron Cohn Middle School, Muscogee County now has 12.

To receive full funding for 12 middle schools from the state, Muscogee County needs to have 7,488 students. Since we do not have that many, the approximately $2.2 million in direct instructional funds needed to operate one of our middle schools as well as the related indirect operational costs have to be covered with local tax revenue.

Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of perspective. Some believe that this cost to local taxpayers is completely reasonable and essential to delivering quality education for our students. Others suggest that this is not an efficient use of local tax revenue and we should move quickly to close another middle school unless there is a realistic possibility of increasing the student population by at least 400 in the foreseeable future.

Aaron Cohn Middle School brings an otherwise murky problem into specific relief. We all agree that quality education is essential to the health of our community. Our differing views on how to generate and spend our money, however, have driven a wedge between us.

The school board has a challenge as it looks for a way to find a place of shared sacrifice that makes the best use of tax revenue while also preserving, if not improving, the quality of local education. Today's revenue reality cannot continue to support the school system we built yesterday. That's a fact regardless of anyone's opinion.

Karl Douglass, Columbus native and resident, is a frequent commenter on local, state and federal politics. Follow him on Twitter@KarlDouglass or facebook.com/karldouglass.

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