More than half the students attending the city’s schools are commuters. The school system has about 1,300 students, including 717 commuters.
In 2003-03, the school system spent about $5,623 to educate each student, School Superintendent Melody Stansell said.
Of that cost, the state paid about 82 percent, or $4,610.
Another 6 percent came from private donations, investment earnings and tuition fees paid by commuters. Each commuter paid a fee of $175 to attend Chickamauga Elementary, $165 to attend Gordon Lee Middle and $135 to attend Gordon Lee High.
The remaining 12 percent, about $674, came from local property taxes. For 753 commuters, the total cost to property owners last year was a little more than $507,000.
SI Corp., formerly Synthetic Industries, is the city’s biggest property owner and pays about half of the property taxes in Chickamauga.
“We raised tuition this year to $250 per (commuting) student at each school, and primarily it was due to state funding (cuts),” Stansell said. “I would not rule out looking at that again because our tuition is one of the lowest in the state.”
Stansell said traditionally the commuter tuition fee has been a minimal charge to help offset costs.
“Over the years, as costs have increased and funds have been cut, the local burden has risen,” she said. “We simply had no choice but to increase tuition this year.
“There is a great deal of cost above and beyond what we get from the state. Funds have always been spent efficiently in the Chickamauga City Schools system and due to state cuts, we are even more frugal than ever before,” Stansell said. “Our staff does an excellent job on a very limited budget.”
To cut costs, it would seem simple to suggest that the school system accept fewer commuters, she said. But for those students and their families, this solution would not be popular because some families have attended the school system for generations, she said.
Another solution might be to greatly increase the tuition fee, she said.
“If we did that, I do feel we would continue to maintain our current enrollment and subsequently earn approximately the same amount of state funding,” she said. “Chickamauga (school system) turns away many students at every grade level each year due to the fact that we simply do not have the space to accommodate them.
“In today’s economy and with declining state funding, I cannot rule out future tuition increases, but I certainly do oppose a huge hike in tuition all at one time. Many of our county families have several children in our system and this would place a definite hardship on them.
Chickamauga City Schools have students from Walker, Dade and Catoosa counties enrolled, she said.
“There is no need for any of the school systems in those counties to contribute funds to the Chickamauga school system (to help pay) for out-of-district students due to the fact that state FTE funding earned for those students goes to the institution in which they are enrolled and served,” she said.
Equal, fair treatment
Stansell said the school system strives to treat all the students and their families, regardless of where they live, in a fair manner.
“When students walk into a teacher’s classroom, he or she does not know if they live in the city or county, and it does not matter,” Stansell said. “Our mission is to provide quality education in a safe and caring environment. I feel we are doing an excellent job of accomplishing our goal … in spite of the current downturn.”
State funding per student is the same whether students are city or county. State funding does not cover all expenses for educating a student, regardless of where the student lives within the city limits, she said.
“The state requires that some local funds be contributed toward the cost of educating students,” she said. “There is no magic number or ratio, but ideally if 100 percent of the students were in-district, taxpayers would only be contributing funds for in-district students and none for out-of-district students. Unfortunately, it is not an ideal world, and I do not know of any school system that does not have out-of-district students.