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Extra Aid to Poor Ala. Districts Rankles Wealthier Ones

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A new school-finance plan has left Alabamas best-funded school districts struggling to make ends meet and financially strapped districts hoping the change is just the tip of the iceberg.

This fall, for the first time, nearly all of Alabama's $2 billion in school funding is being distributed through a formula that gives poor districts extra aid and wealthier districts less than they usually get.

The change is intended as a step toward remedying longstanding school inequities in the state. Alabama is under a 1993 circuit court order to make school funding "equitable and adequate."

The lawsuit is pending. But the small steps toward addressing disparities have already met with a sour reaction.

Education officials in Alabama are quick to point out that school wealth is a relative characteristic: Even the best-funded of Alabama's 127 school districts spends less per pupil than the 1991-92 national average of $5,029. Average per-pupil spending in Birmingham schools, for example, was about $4,880 for the 1991-92 school year--the second highest in the state. That same year, the Etowah County district spent $2,900 per child, among the lowest in the state.

Relative Wealth

For James G. Speake, a lawyer in Moulton, Ala., who worked with the school districts that sued the state over its finance system in 1990, the new funding formula does nothing to bridge inequities among such schools, which, he said, are "horribly underfunded" in the first place.

"It's like a Band-Aid on a cancer," he said of the reform. "The new funding formula moves at a snail's pace toward equity. And it's typical Alabama, which historically has not been interested in education."

Unlike wealthier states, where cuts to the best-financed schools might scuttle plans for a new sports stadium or another state-of-the-art computer lab, funding reform in Alabama has forced some of its better-off school districts to narrow academic offerings and put off long-term technology goals.

The 3,500-student Mountain Brook city school district has decided to pull foreign-language instruction from elementary schools and put aside plans to buy new computers, according to Superintendent Charles G. Mason.

"It's been a big challenge for us," Mr. Mason said, adding that financial problems were compounded by a recent state mandate for teacher pay raises, which cost his district $500,000 from next year's reserves.

Struggle Continues

School officials in the Fort Payne city schools, a 2,300-student district near the Tennessee and Georgia borders, said the state upped its portion of the district's $9.5 million budget by $500,000 this year.

Sandy Reece, the director of finance for the rural district--which, at $2,680, spent the least per pupil in the state in 1991-92--said the money has been helpful. But the need is still great.

The district hopes to replace old school buses, she said, and replace an outdated elementary school. But more immediately, she said, there's a need for English-as-a-second-language instruction, brought on by a recent influx of Spanish-speaking students whose parents work on nearby farms.

"I know the state is limited--it can't give out more than it takes in, and nobody wants to see a tax increase when salaries aren't going up," Ms. Reece said. "But we're hoping for more."

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