Is Georgia Military College State-Controlled or Private?
In Georgia's antebellum capital of Milledgeville, a quiet town of 12,000 far from the interstates that radiate from Atlanta, an unusual school with a tangled history is stirring a debate that reaches from local parent-teacher gatherings to the halls of state government.
It is a debate that the writer Flannery O'Connor, once Milledgeville's most renowned resident, might have savored.
A "public'' military academy with an Old South patina becomes the only "private'' school in the state to receive state aid; some black citizens support it, others view it as a symbol of racism; it boasts powerful political supporters, who say they value its historic status; those who say it violates the laws are victims of harassment.
Earlier this year, Georgia's attorney general helped set off the current fracas by ruling that the predominantly white Georgia Military College, located in predominantly black Baldwin County, should be classified as a public school, even though it charges $1,548 a year in tuition.
That ruling pitted prominent friends and alumni of the 109-year-old Milledgeville school against community activists who claim the military school is a glorified segregation academy. The activists, both black and white parents, say they are working with the American Civil Liberties Union to prepare a lawsuit against the school and state and local officials, charging violations of state and federal law.
"Georgia Military College is public in name, it's public in funding, it's public in charter, but it charges tuition and operates as a private school,'' said the Rev. Edward B. Nelson, a Methodist minister and former president of the Baldwin High School parent-teacher association.
GMC officials say they realize the tuition has the effect of keeping most blacks out, but maintain it is necessary to keep the school running. They say they would welcome full state support, but doubt taxpayers would be willing to pay for it.
"We're not, strictly speaking, a public school,'' said Hugh S. Kinard, principal of the preparatory school. "This school is just a little different, it doesn't fit into any category.''
Said Dave L. Brotherton, superintendent of the Baldwin County public schools: "GMC is an old and established historical institution. For it to become part of the traditional public-school system would require considerable changes.''
Activists say their outspokenness in challenging the school's public financial support has resulted in threatening anonymous letters and telephone calls and job harassment. Many blacks are staying out of the debate, contending that supporters of GMC have influence over hiring at the state psychiatric hospital in Milledgeville, the county's largest employer, and at two state prisons located in the county.
"People are so frightened,'' said one activist who asked not to be identified.
Georgia Military College, founded in 1879 by an act of the legislature on the site of Georgia's antebellum capitol, has all the earmarks of a private academy: The students--called "cadets''--are required to wear uniforms, its sports teams compete with other private-school teams, and the school belongs to the National Association of Independent Schools, an organization of about 900 U.S. private schools.
Some of the school's illustrious alumni include former Gov. George Busbee, the late U.S. Representative Carl Vinson, and Baldwin County's powerful state senator, Culver Kidd.
The school enrolls 377 students in grades 6-12. About 95 percent of its students are white, and 90 percent are local residents. It employs no black faculty members.
The Baldwin County public schools are 58 percent black.
The military school also encompasses a two-year college enrolling 267 students, about 30 percent of whom are black.
Best of Both Worlds'
Complicating the picture is the school's long history of state funding.
Until the late 1950's, GMC was the only public high school for white males in Baldwin County. After the county's schools were desegregated by court order in 1969, the military academy became coeducational, began charging tuition, and made ROTC participation optional.
"The school has the best of both worlds,'' said Mr. Nelson. "They have public funds, and are using state land, but are operating a private school.''
The school received funding through the state education department until 1985, when the legislature passed a school-reform law, the Quality Basic Education Act. One provision of the act prohibits state funding to schools that charge tuition.
Channeled Through Regents
Despite the reform law, Mr. Kidd has successfully lobbied for continued--and even increased--state funding for the school. With support from Gov. Joe Frank Harris and House Speaker Tom Murphy, the senator has pushed legislation through that channeled money to the school through the state university system--despite objections from the Georgia Board of Regents.
Funding for GMC through the university system began in 1979 as a $90,000-a-year payment from nearby Georgia College as rent for the use of GMC's gymnasium and some dormitory space.
The appropriation increased substantially, but gradually, until 1986, when it leaped from $225,000 to $609,000, according to Kay Miller, assistant to H. Dean Propst, chancellor of the university system.
Last year, the appropriation rose to $619,000. In February, the legislature appropriated $739,000 for GMC for the 1988 fiscal year, and Mr. Harris has signed the measure.
Subsidy Covered Three
This past fall, however, only three Georgia College students were housed in GMC dorms. Next year, Georgia College's own $7.2-million athletic facility will be completed, so it will no longer use the military school's gymnasium.
"Over the years, the funds got larger and larger, even though we had never asked for the additional funding,'' Ms. Miller said.
The state education department has not taken an official position in the controversy surrounding the military school, said H.F. Johnson, associate superintendent. He added, however, that "we don't view it as part of the public-school system.''
But Attorney General Michael Bowers, in a February opinion requested by the Governor, said that because the school receives more funds for its $4.5-million operating budget from state and local sources than from tuition, it is a public school.
Mr. Johnson, however, argues that the amount the school receives from tuition far exceeds the amount that comes from local tax effort. The military school receives 1 mill in property taxes from Milledgeville--about $98,000 last year--as historically mandated by the city's charter.
"As long as they charge tuition, or until the law is changed, it's not a Georgia public school,'' Mr. Johnson said.
Mr. Kidd has said he will continue to push for funding for GMC, but would like to find a new way to do it, perhaps through student scholarships.
The community activists, however, say turning the state's subsidy into a scholarship program would not resolve the underlying issue.
"No public school shall charge tuition--that's the law,'' said Melba J. Burrell, the current president of Baldwin High's parent-teacher association. "The school is being funded illegally and is promoting segregation.''
Christopher Coates, a local lawyer, said he was working with the parents' group and the ACLU. He said the parents would decide within a month whether to file suit.
If a suit is filed, Mr. Coates said, it would charge that the school is violating the education-reform law, the county's desegregation order, federal education and civil-rights laws, and the U.S. Constitution's equal-protection clause.
Local officials also could be liable, he said, for "offending their duty to desegregate public education in Baldwin County.''
Anonymous Calls, Letters
Since the group of parents began protesting the school's funding arrangements, activists say, unusual things have been happening.
A week after Ms. Burrell wrote a letter expressing her opinion on the controversy to the Milledgeville Union Recorder, the local newspaper, she was fired from her job as senior vice president and chief operating officer at First Federal Savings and Loan, though she retains her position on the bank's board.
She had held the position for 16 years.
The bank has denied that the firing was related to the GMC controversy, saying it was due to a "personality clash'' with Ms. Burrell.
Ms. Burrell also said that she and her husband have received threatening telephone calls.
According to Mr. Nelson, an anonymous letter was sent to his church superiors accusing him of being "vindictive'' toward GMC and calling for his ouster as minister of the Montpelier United Methodist Church.
"It is no secret among blacks that if they are vocal they will be harrassed and lose their livelihood,'' said Mr. Nelson.
Also not surprising, the activists say, has been the reaction among some local officials. When the Baldwin PTA adopted a resolution asking the district's school board to express its disapproval of GMC's tuition requirement, the board took no action.
Blacks Not in Agreement
Some prominent black citizens in Milledgeville have declared their support for GMC, terming that a necessary step toward increasing the number of black students at the school.
Baldwin County's first black commissioner, Oscar Davis, endorsed the school in a letter to the local newspaper, praising the school's military education. One of his sons graduated from the school and his granddaughter is a student there.
The city attorney, Charles Mathis, and Louis Huley, president of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, are also among GMC.'s black supporters. They say that increased financial aid for the school is what is needed.
The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People last month announced it would raise money for five full scholarships to the school.
Mr. Kinard contends that GMC "was never intended to be what we call in the South an 'integration academy,' but it appears that way because students in the lower socioeconomic rungs tend to be black.'' He said the school has an open-admissions policy, and does not require students to take an admission test.
According to Mr. Kinard, two foundations, one set up by the school and one set up by alumni, currently give scholarships to GMC students.
He said the school was planning to increase black enrollment to 8 or 9 percent next year. But he expressed doubt that enrollment patterns would change substantially.
"I'm not sure how one can manipulate enrollment in that way,'' Mr. Kinard said.
The controversy over the school "is a matter of going through a period of adjustment,'' according to Mr. Kinard. And its future, he noted, depends on action by the legislature.
"There seems to be a need for a residential school here,'' he said. "I would see the trend is toward us becoming more public, rather than private.''