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First days critical to funding schools

As areas schools prepare for another school year, Marengo County Schools Superintendent Luke Hallmark issued a letter Tuesday, pleading with parents to make sure their children are at school the first day, noting that thousands of dollars are lost every year because of a “growing pattern in Alabama schools in which some parents allow their children to miss the first few days of a new school year.”

“In many cases, the number of absences far exceeds what is normal for a regular school day,” he said in the letter.

Hallmark said the majority of school funding comes from state funds, which are allocated from the Foundation Program based on the 40-day average daily membership, or how many students are in attendance during the first 40 days of school.

“Once a child attends school, they are considered a member and are counted as part of the average daily membership,” Hallmark said. However, he said “membership” is typically much higher after that 40-day period, and that is something he said needs to change.

“If we can get all our kids in school on the first day, we’ve maximized our state funding dollars,” he said. He noted that one school may show an average daily membership of 476, yet by Thanksgiving be serving more than 500 students.

“We don’t have extra local money lying around for emergencies, so we have to be extremely conservative with our decisions that we make,” he said.

If too low, that membership number could result in the loss of teaching units, leading to larger class sizes, and could even mean the loss of a full-time nurse, counselor or librarian.

Hallmark said the combination of low attendance rates and state budget cuts has made for difficult financing, but he said the system is holding on.

“We’ve been keeping our heads above water, but we’re just treading water,” he said.

In Demopolis, Superintendent Wesley Hill said he feels encouraged by the numbers he’s heard, but agreed attendance is very important to funding.

“I’ve been checking with the schools and it looks positive so far based on orientation and enrollment,” he said. “Most all funding is geared toward attendance during the first 40 days of attendance, though there is an adjustment for growth.”

He said probably the most important aspect of that first 40 days is its influence on teaching units, or how many teachers the state will fund for a particular school.

“If you have a low attendance in that first 40 days, then that affects the number of teaching units that school gets which affects class size,” he said. “That attendance if very important.”

Demopolis schools started back today, while Marengo County schools will begin Aug. 16.