Just read a headline and part of a story that says Tennessee schools are “short” at least $1.5 billion. Brings to mind my oft-thought comment that area schools are funded relatively well.

The key is “relative” and it can be turned every which way.

The Barrow County schools have a budget of about $137 million. That should be enough for anyone, right? But educators there quickly point to the per pupil spending by the district and the small size of the central office.

Barrow’s per pupil spending is considerably less than the state average, much less compared to other school districts. Anyone with a modicum of knowledge would point out that districts in big cities spend a lot more than Barrow.

Similarly, Jackson County schools have per pupil spending much higher than its compatriots — Jefferson and Commerce city schools. But Jackson County spending is lower than the state average (Georgia has a few districts that spend thousands per pupil more than anyone in our area.)

According to the 2017 Survey of School System Finances, Georgia’s “average” per pupil spending pales next to large districts either in or near large cities. Of course, the cost of everything is lower around here also.

To consider the main item that is discussed about school funding — teacher salaries — I’m one of those who believe teachers are underpaid. But teachers with experience, say a decade or more, and a master’s degree, make $50,000-$60,000 in our schools. That is about an “average” salary for the market.

(For those on the lower side of those numbers, it seems like pretty good pay.)

Go spend a week in a classroom. See if that changes your mind. I’ve told several folks in the past year that I would kill students in a class if I had to deal with them daily. It requires a bunch of energy and lots of ideas to hold the attention of kids.

Granted, not every teacher is excellent. No field has only the best people — but those that pay exceptionally well do better than most, I would guess. (Having said that, I have known some lawyers who I wondered how they ever passed the bar to practice.)

I should say somewhere that about 85 percent of any school budget goes to salaries and benefits. That doesn’t leave much for everything else.

In Georgia, Gwinnett County is often touted as “best” and “worst.” The county has the largest school system in the state. Its high schools are among the largest in the state. The schools offer the most classes and the most difficult classes — partly because enough kids are there to justify them. Average household income also is among the highest in the state — its residents make money.

Getting back to the local area, Barrow and Jackson counties have relatively large school systems. Banks and Madison counties don’t, along with Commerce and Jefferson.

State folks will tell you, quickly, that Georgia spends more than half its budget on education. But that usually includes colleges, not just K-12 schools. Even without that, schools get the most money in the state budget (in the high 40s as a percentage).

But only in the last two or three years has the state “fully funded” its formula for providing state money to schools — which has not been revised in more than 30 years. Teachers probably will get the rest of their $5,000 pay raise in the next budget, thanks to Gov. Brian Kemp, but transportation of students continues to get little state money. For places like Hall, Barrow and Jackson counties, that is a large chunk of local money.

For every statistic, I can cite to show the schools are well-funded, another stat can be cited to show they are not.

The best comparisons, likely, are per pupil. Those can show fair comparisons between large and small districts. Still, economy of scale is a factor. Large districts have more need to have large selections of classes, some would say. Buying large amounts for food or technology might get better prices from some companies.

Superintendents always point to parents’ incomes and levels of education as the best way to pinpoint the “best” schools. They have a valid point.

Perhaps the “worst” schools should get the biggest chunk of money for their systems, but try telling that to wealthy areas that have people with healthy respect for education and money to back their beliefs.

Ron Bridgeman is a reporter for Mainstreet Newspapers. Send him email to ron@mainstreetnews.com

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