Debbie Deavours has spent 33 years in the Fayette County school system, the last eight as principal at the elementary school in the little town of Berry with its 1,250 people. Debbie has 300 students in pre-K–6, some 65 percent of whom get free and reduced lunches.
And as is often the case with rural schools, the money runs out before the needs are met. Which means Debbie and her staff fundraise just to keep the doors open, not to enjoy extras. This means selling snacks is about as critical as textbooks. You see, Berry Elementary has to come up with funds to pay for phones, toilet paper, paper towels, cleaning products, the leases on three copiers, etc. The central office simply has no funds to help with such needs.
“Normally we raise about $2,000 at our annual Field Day,” Debbie explains. “However, the last one only netted $895.”
Deavours is the current president of the Alabama Association of Elementary School Administrators, which means she is in contact with many of her counterparts around the state. “Many of them just don’t believe the things we have to do to keep the school running.”
Debbie understands the situation the central office faces and readily accepts the reality of what she must do to keep her school in operation.
However, she does not believe the Alabama legislature understands the money restraints she faces daily. Instead, they take $25 million from the education trust fund to give tax breaks to businesses who fund scholarships for private schools, they give staff members $40,000 raises and spend $30,000 to refurbish a cloakroom at the Statehouse.
While this is happening, Deavours is trying to figure out how to pay the $3,900 a year she spends to lease three copiers and the $350-$400 a month phone bill.
The struggles Deavours and her school face are a reflection of what is happening in her community — and most of its counterparts throughout Alabama. Fifteen years ago there were 380 students at Berry Elementary and only 34 percent on free–reduced lunches. Now there are 300 with 65 percent on free–reduced lunches.
The economic downturn of the last decade meant the outmigration of young families who went looking for employment in other places. Today 33 percent of workers in the Berry zip code work outside the county and 17 percent of its citizens have a median annual income of less than $10,000.
In January 2000, unemployment in Fayette County was 9.1 percent. There were 8,020 people in the county labor force and 7,290 had jobs. In March of this year unemployment was down to 6.7 percent. But don’t be fooled. This was a function of a shrinking labor force, not more jobs. Two months ago the labor force was only 6,247, while the number of jobs was 5,829. So while unemployment percent improved, the number of jobs actually decreased 20 percent.
What this really means for Deavours is that each year she must get blood from a smaller and smaller turnip.
And the last time Debbie tried to see her own state senator in his Montgomery office she was told he was too busy.
The story of Berry Elementary is repeated in rural communities across Alabama, from the Tennessee Valley to the Wiregrass. But while Deavours worries about missing a fund-raising goal by $1,105, legislative leadership spends $200,000 to renovate a conference room in the Statehouse.
There is definitely a disconnect between the realities rural school principals face and the world our policymakers in Montgomery envision.
In Debbie’s case, her senator had no opposition in either the primary or general election of 2014. According to the Secretary of State’s Office, he had $42,010 in his campaign account in July 2013 and $315,039 at the end of 2014. So in a campaign when he had no opponent, his war chest grew by $273,129.
Maybe the principal should begin sending some of her bills to him since he has money and she doesn’t.
Larry Lee led the study Lessons Learned from Rural Schools and is a long-time advocate for public education. Contact Larry at email@example.com.