Prisoners vs. Pupils: A WAFF 48 News special report

By Elizabeth Gentle - bio | email

HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - Money intended to fund your child's education isn't going to the classroom. In fact, most of a big pot of money meant for Alabama schools was actually spent on Alabama prisoners.

In a time of deep budget cuts, layoffs and consolidations, school leaders say they need every penny just to operate. So, when it comes to spending stimulus cash, why are Alabama inmates getting money meant for Alabama students?

Before leaving office, Governor Bob Riley spent about $4,500 per prisoner in stimulus money sent from the U.S. Department of Education. That is four times the amount spent per pupil.

"It's tough running a school with no money," said Priceville Elementary School Principal Anne Knowlton.

Knowlton says teachers at Priceville Elementary have learned to do a lot more with a lot less. That doesn't irritate her as much as what most everyone in education calls the state's poor decision to spend DOE stimulus dollars on health care costs for inmates instead of on keeping schools open and teacher payroll.

Knowlton says that definitely has an impact on students' minds.

"If we don't educate our children, we don't give them the skills to be successful in life," she said. "They will end up in prison."

It's a proven fact that students who fail classes and drop out are more likely to spend time behind bars than those who do well in school. So if finances are so drained, what's a teacher to do?

State funding has been cut, there's no money for library supplies, instructional materials, common purchases, or technology in the classroom.

Doctor Bill Hopkins is new to the Morgan County Superintendent's office. It's his job to worry about money matters and he knows the financial pitfalls facing state schools.

"Due to proration, that will cut us $1.1 million," said Dr. Hopkins. That's $158,000 a month.

"Going into this, we did not fulfill our one month reserve last year and at this rate there is no chance of us fulfilling it this year so our one month reserve is around $3.9 million," said Dr. Hopkins. "So what has the board decided the next step will be? Obviously the only way to save money is to cut personnel."

Hopkins believes schools wouldn't be in this mess if the state hadn't funneled $118 million of education stimulus money to the state prison system. So while the prison system got a multimillion dollar boost, he's going to cut 35 teachers to save the system $2 million.

"Obviously we could use that for personnel," said Dr. Hopkins. "One proven fact is low pupil teacher ratio is best for test scores and learning. If we were able to use that towards those 35 units, it would have a direct impact on the classroom."

The stimulus money is all spent and gone. There is no changing the way it was spent, but what do the people who spent it have to say for themselves?

Governor Riley would not speak about it on camera, but his spokesperson said Riley had no choice because the prison system was broke too and that if they didn't give more than $100 million to the prison system, there would be a risk of federal takeover. He said another option would have been to let inmates out of prison.

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