Funding cuts threaten Early College program

A program helping 55 Bibb County public school seventh-graders get an early start in college is in jeopardy of closing due to funding cuts, according to officials.

The Early College program is a partnership between Bibb County public schools and Macon State College that started last fall in a wing at Hutchings Career Center.

It’s one of at least six in the state that was started by state education officials several years ago to address low high school graduation and college enrollment rates among minorities and at-risk students.

The program in Macon allows students who may not be fulfilling their potential to earn 30 college credit hours by the time they graduate high school in 2013.

Although the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded a $2 million, five-year grant to jump-start the state programs and then the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation later matched the grant, state funding also pays a portion.

Bibb and Macon State were awarded a three year, $375,000 grant to cover books, employ a dean and three to five teachers.

But questions arose this week about whether the program would continue to be funded after recent state budget cuts.Wednesday, the Bibb school system called a special meeting for Thursday evening to ask the board to vote on whether to close the program.

But Bibb schools Superintendent Sharon Patterson canceled the meeting Thursday, saying there are pending developments from the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia.

Whether Bibb’s program would remain open is up in the air, she said.

“I got a phone call (Thursday) about a shift in funding from the Board of Regents and I wanted to explore it,” Patterson said. “We believe it is a good program but would have to have the Legislature fund it.”

The Early College program falls under the umbrella of the Board of Regents, which is facing a $6.38 million state budget reduction in fiscal year 2010, which starts July 1, said regents spokesman John Millsaps.

Part of that cut includes $700,000 to its P-16 initiatives that focus on improving programs from pre-school through college. Early College, college readiness, teacher education and educational reform type improvement programs fall into P-16.

Millsaps said Thursday it’s too early to say anything about the future of Early College programs statewide because the Board of Regents still is sorting through budgetary cuts.

“We are trying to assess the cuts that we received and looking at the overall priorities to make some judgments to move forward,” he said. “It was two weeks ago that the General Assembly wrapped up session and the budget.”

The state department of education is facing a 3 percent reduction from the proposed 2010 state budget, which calls for overall spending of about $18.6 billion, said Bert Brantley, a spokesman for Gov. Sonny Perdue.

Since education spending is about half the budget expense, “it’s hard not to touch the largest portion,” he said.

There has also been a push by the state in recent years to limit school system funding for programs that are considered “double funded” Brantley also said.

Some school systems code students enrolled in dual enrollment programs, where students are still in high school but also take some local college classes, as vocational students. In doing so, school systems get paid from the state to teach them while colleges also get state money for having those same students enrolled in college courses.

“It didn’t make sense for the state to double fund kids being in school and college, as well,” he said. Under some of those type programs, school systems would in the amended 2009 and proposed 2010 budget be funded less, he said.

It was unclear late Thursday whether Early College programs fall into that category.

Brantley said he didn’t know about any Board of Regents or school system decisions regarding the future of Early College Initiative programs.

Typically, he said, the state supports education programs that encourage students to graduate and excel in college. At the same time, many state-funded programs fall victim to the sour economy.

“Certainly there is a major push with the governor and state leaders to better recognize when students are ready for additional challenges and advanced coursework ... but obviously it’s a tough budget year,” he said. “If decisions like this are made, obviously the hope is it would be a very temporary thing.”

A teacher and the Early College program dean for Bibb County schools, Sonya Thomas, was unable to comment about the future of the program. She and other program officials were instructed not to talk to the media by Bibb County school system spokesman Chris Floore, Thomas said.

To contact writer Julie Hubbard, call 744-4331.