#8216;Black Belt#039; bill should include Butler, says Looney

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 19, 2007

Mike Looney, superintendent of the Butler County School System since July 2005, isn't looking for a fight. He's looking for money.

That's why issues that halted approval of a $1 billion-plus bond issue that would provide capital improvement funds for virtually every school in Alabama may be beneficial for area schools and students.

The delay gives him time to build a case for change in the financial distribution process.

It's not that he is concerned with the basic funding formula. It allocates $3,000,461 for Butler County and is based on a $200,000 across-the-board flat fee, the average daily attendance and a pro-rata share of the existing Public School Fund. It is the highest level of projected funding to date.

But he does question a separate allocation of $15 million, earmarked for systems within the Black Belt region, a geographic area that - for the bill - includes Selma, Demopolis and Linden city and Bullock, Choctaw, Dallas, Greene, Hale, Lowndes, Macon, Marengo, Perry, Pickens, Sumter and Wilcox County systems.

Butler County is not included. Looney says it should be.

&#8220We're part of the Black Belt,” he said, stating the simplicity of his argument. &#8220Look at the geography of the region. Look at the broad demographics. Look at any piece of available data and it's clear, we meet all the criteria of being a part of the Black Belt.”

Inclusion in that category of the appropriations package, House Bill 21, would provide close to another $1 million for the local system.

&#8220We are deserving of that money,” he said. &#8220We need it.

And we're going to claw, to scratch and fight for every penny we can get.”

Introduced by Rep. Richard Lindsey, D-Centre, the &#8220something for everyone” bill ran into a brick wall Thursday.

It wasn't that the embattled Senate, still trying to resolve its own procedural and organizational problems, offered an alternative. It didn't, but likely will either in the waning five days of the session or a now anticipated special session in the near future.

The $1.052 billion capital improvement proposal, designed basically to fix decades of building woes caused by age, decay and neglect, drew opposition from Lindsey's fellow lawmakers sensitive to control of the massive financial commitment. It drew issue opposition from Gov. Bob Riley, who wants to prevent it from becoming more political than practical. And it drew opposition from House members from Birmingham and Jefferson County, who feel UAB's portion is less than it should be.

Democrats seek to add Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr. and chairmen of both House and Senate budget committees to the governing board originally set to include the governor, the state finance director and the state superintendent of education.

Republicans suggest an emergency-and-special needs component, allocated for $44 million, could become more of a political slush fund for Democrats if not properly managed.

UAB supporters essentially want more, pointing to its medical school as the catalyst for economic stability in the state's largest city.

Though endorsed by the education budget committee, debate on those issues prevented a vote by the full House, tossing the bill that offers unprecedented capital funds for every K-12, community college, university and special interest educational unit in the state temporarily aside.

It is scheduled for more discussion next week. That only five days remain in the session could cause a problem, especially if the Senate files a similar bill that requires conference consideration.

Many veteran observers suggest odds of a special session loom more likely each day.