July 21, 2024

Getting the facts straight on Fayette school funding


In a recent guest editorial to the AJC “Get Schooled” Blog, Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GPBI) Director Stephen J. Owens advocates for “equitable funding” in education.

He cites an example where “Clayton County schools received $1,245 less per student in state and local funding than neighboring Fayette County, due to the uniquely American policy of tying school funding to local property values.”

Mr. Owens omits that when federal funds are counted, that Clayton received $560 more per student than Fayette in total educational funding.

For comparison in FY 2023 total educational funding, Clayton schools received over $714 million while Fayette received just over $260 million. When you consider student FTE population, Fayette has just over 20,000 students, versus Clayton at over 52,000.

However, expenditure per student FTE in both systems are near the average system in Georgia of $13,189, with Fayette slightly lower and Clayton slightly higher.

Looking as far back as 2019, Clayton’s investment in expenditure per pupil has materially lagged the state average until FY 2023.

Clayton’s collection from federal sources more than doubled per student since 2021 from $718/per FTE in 2020 to $1,785 in 2021, now totaling over $120 million dollars in just FY 2023.

Meanwhile slightly more than half of Fayette’s funding comes from the county’s citizens, with a millage rate near the maximum allowed.

In 2023 Clayton property owners funded 31.3% of its school’s operations. In these inflationary times, rising costs are eating away at Fayette’s ability to maintain smaller class size in neighborhood schools.

Worse, Mr. Owens neglects to mention that the state’s QBE funding formula subtracts the equivalent of 5 mills from the earned state funding as the “fair share” of local funding. Fayette County has lost over $95 million over the past 5 years.

However, the state gives equalization grants to systems below the top 90% of tax digest value that can offset the “fair share.” When you net the two, Clayton received an additional $95 million in state funding over the past five fiscal years. Therefore that represents a $190 million shift between Fayette and Clayton in Clayton’s favor.

Further, Mr. Owens neglects to mention that Clayton just secured its seventh E—SPLOST projected to collect $330 million, while Fayette is on its fourth.

Fayette passed its first E-SPLOST in 2008 after strong citizen involvement assured the public that the money was necessary and would be wisely spent. As I see extravagant projects on both, I am wondering if it is time to ask our legislature to allow a certain percentage of E-SPLOST funds to be used in operations in lieu of property taxes.

I think we need educated students more than we need prettier buildings and ball fields.

It would be easy to dismiss my objection to Mr. Owen’s argument as mere politics. While not as impressive as the GPBI, I have chaired Fayette Citizen’s for Children a group that has advocated for our excellent Fayette County Public Schools for more than 15 years.

While I agree that we need to properly fund all schools, it essential that our schools are both cost effective and operationally efficient on their task of educating children. At an equitable educational cost per student, our excellent Fayette schools have met that challenge.

[Neil Sullivan is a finance/accounting executive and CPA. He has lived in Peachtree City over 20 years with his wife Jennifer, a Fayette County History teacher and son Jackson, a sophomore at Erskine College. He has been active in public school related issues in Fayette County, leading three E-SPLOST initiatives as chairman of Fayette Citizens for Children. He has appeared previously on these pages in letters to the editor.]

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