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Study touts efficiency of school district
Amanda Martin, left, talks with teacher Nick Crowder about a bridge design projects during an engineering class at South Forsyth High. - photo by Autumn McBride

It’s not easy being green. It can, however, be very rewarding, as the Forsyth County school system recently learned.

The district was one of just 22 district in the state to receive a green, or highest, rank for basic return on student investment.

In other words, while the county spent among the least per pupil, those students outperformed most of their peers in the state.

The study, conducted by the Center for American Progress, breaks down all 50 states, county by county.

“When you factor in the amount of expenditures per student and then to look at the achievement levels ... I was really pleased,” said Forsyth Superintendent Buster Evans. “This shows some really, really good efficiency.”

The study separated system budgets by federal, state and local funding. It also looked at how much money went toward instruction, administration, students and staff support, among other factors. 

“I started looking at the other states ... to try to see who had better levels of efficiency,” Evans said. “If they’re doing something better, I want to know about it and I want to figure out what is it they’re doing that we ought to replicate.”

Dan Jones, the school system’s financial director, said the center’s figures don’t quite match the state’s numbers but still reflect similar gaps between systems.

The study and state reports, he said, go “hand in hand.”

The study used 2008 expenditures, which don’t show reductions in spending due to budget cuts.

Jones said the system’s figures show Forsyth spent about $8,413 per student in 2008, since fallen to $7,868 in 2010.

The study’s figures, which came from the National Center for Education Statistics, show Forsyth spent about $9,159 per pupil on instruction in 2008.

Cobb and Gwinnett counties were slightly higher, at $9,428 and $9,570 respectively. Fulton spent about $10,283, and Atlanta’s school system spent $13,516, second highest in the state next to Baker County’s $13,938 per student.

Yet Forsyth, along with Troup County, shares the highest achievement index in the state at 96 of a possible 100.

Atlanta came in at 80, with Gwinnett and Cobb both at 90, and Fulton at 88.

The study’s information is useful to more than just educators, said Randall Toussaint, vice president of economic development for the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce.

Toussaint said it shows investors and corporations that the county is dedicated to training its future work force from the elementary level into the collegiate level.

“In the last several months, our school system has been one of the most valid reasons why international companies have taken a look at our community,” he said.

“We’ve had two projects in particular that have been tremendously impressed and decided to place Forsyth County as their sole option for expanding into the U.S.”

The study also takes a deeper look at student populations, exploring how many special education students each system serves.

It also breaks down spending, as well as percentages of various races and the number of students who speak English as a second language.

When these factors are added, the county’s return on investment ranking drops. 

For example, with about 14 percent of students receiving free or reduced price lunches in 2008, Forsyth has fewer children in need than most systems in Georgia.

More than 76 percent of Atlanta students, about 41 percent of Gwinnett students and 35 percent in Cobb receive free or discounted lunches.

Places like east Georgia’s Hancock County, a remote area where nearly 86 percent of students are on low-cost lunch plans, fared better once their circumstances were taken into account.

It costs the school system more to educate disadvantaged students, but this portion of the study also pointed to the potential for lower achievement.

“The measure also adjusts academic expectations for students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” according to the research explanation.

“The Center for American Progress opposes the lowering of academic expectations as a matter of policy ... because we do not believe that a country that promises that everyone is created equal should have lower educational standards for students who are from low-income families or speak English as a second language.”

But as the center continued its research, the additional return on investment column was added to include disadvantaged students.

The information provides insight into overall efficiency, which Evans said he was glad to see included.

“I’ve had a couple of people tell me that where you have student affluence, you also have higher student achievement,” Evans said. “That is a generality and I think that is, generally speaking, an accurate observation. But that tells me we ought to be doing good, if this is a valid assumption.

“The other thing it tells me is as I look at other systems’ data, there are some other systems that don’t have the level of affluence we have, but yet they’re doing well too.”

Evans said Forsyth needs to look at how those other systems are working with their economically disadvantaged students to create higher achievement.

“We’ve got to be good consumers of this data,” he said. “We need to not just pat us on the back and say we’re doing a good job, but also evaluate that data and look at how we can help every student succeed to their maximum level.”