For almost a decade, the Next Start scholarship program –- funded by the city and run by what is now the Public Education Foundation of Anniston –- provided dozens of Anniston High School graduates with scholarships to help them attend college.
The program sent 480 kids to college, most of them just down the road at Jacksonville State, where they needed only a working car – not a dorm room – to participate in campus life. It seemed like a pretty good idea, particularly in a school system where poverty rates are high and most kids come from families where no one has had the chance to go to college.
The program ended in 2007, when an attorney general’s ruling declared that Anniston can’t give city money directly to private individuals. State Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, tried to bring the program back with an amendment that would again allow the city to fund the program. When voters went to the polls last week, Anniston residents – the only people really affected by the proposal – gave the amendment their support. But the measure failed because it needed countywide support, and county voters said no.
It’s clearly a frustrating situation for Boyd and others who supported the measure, though some members of the Public Education Foundation’s board of directors are taking the news in stride.
“It’s sad that this didn’t pass, but I wouldn’t say that the foundation took a hit,” said Sherri Sumners, a member of the board and president of the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce. She noted that the foundation continues to do a lot of good work in the community even without the scholarship program.
“The foundation’s real benefit is not money so much as the unbelievable number of volunteers available to it,” Sumners said. She said the group has 175 volunteers who participate in mentoring and character education courses in Anniston schools. The schools get a benefit because they have help in the classroom – but also, she said, from the information that flows the other way.
“It really helps community leaders understand the situation in the school system,” Sumners said. “They come away with a different impression of our schools than they had before. They come away knowing that we have really good kids who appreciate the attention of the community.”
But it’s not at all clear that the average Calhoun County voter knows about the good work of the Public Education Foundation. In fact, most local people may have difficulty telling he difference between PEFA and another, equally beneficial organization –- the Anniston Community Education Foundation.
Founded in the wake of local residents’ lawsuit against Monsanto –- the company that polluted much of west Anniston with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs -– the Anniston Community Education Foundation is a major benefactor for educational projects in Anniston and surrounding communities. Its major source of funding – for now, at least -– is Solutia, the successor to Monsanto, which has been ordered to pay restitution to the people harmed by PCBs.
Every year, ACEF writes large grants to a wide variety of local organizations, from Community Actors’ Studio Theatre to the Health Services Center, for education- and health-related projects. In Anniston terms, the size of the grants is fairly impressive: The group gave out $182,000 this year, bringing ACEF’s career total to more than $1 million.
But the money won’t last forever. Solutia’s court-ordered payments to the group will end in 2014, and then the group will have to find a funding source.
“We’re in the process of planning a transition from private foundation status to public foundation status,” said Marquitta Williams, the group’s executive director. Williams said the switch is still in the planning stage, so it’s too early to talk about new sources of funding.
Which brings up the question: Why doesn’t PEFA go to ACEF to seek funding for its scholarship program – while there’s still money there? And once ACEF becomes a public foundation, why not merge both groups to increase their ability to raise money?
“My understanding is that we can’t because it’s prohibited by the terms set by the court,” said Wonder Osborne, interim director of PEFA. But what about merging the groups after ACEF is no longer funded by Solutia? Osborne says the topic’s not on the agenda at PEFA.
Ask members of either group, and you’ll find that there’s a back story here – one that left lots of people feeling bruised, and one that no one is entirely willing to tell.
One thing is clear: PEFA has never applied to ACEF for funding for its scholarship program. ACEF director Shirley Baker Carter said the group has never asked for the money because ACEF is prohibited, under the terms of its court order, from giving scholarships in the first place.
“Why would we want to give money to another organization for scholarships,” she said. “These are two organizations with two different missions.”
But there’s more to it than that. Of the board members – from both PEFA and ACEF – who would talk about the concept of a merger, all mentioned that the idea was brought up years ago, and didn’t end well.
“There’s always been this fight about the two merging,” said Rep. Boyd, who is on the board of ACEF. “That’s a hot coal.”
Whatever the reason for the controversy over the merger, both groups seem to have settled on the idea that a merger isn’t going to happen. One reason, they say, is that the groups do indeed have different missions, despite their seeming similarities. To make a long story short, ACEF is designed – and mandated by court order – to address the health and welfare issues of people affected by Monsanto, while PEFA exists to help kids in Anniston schools.
“There’s not as much overlap there as you might think,” said Sumners.
Whatever the reason for the split, it looks like PEFA and ACEF are each on their own. That means ACEF will be looking for its own funders come 2014, and PEFA will need another amendment if it wants its scholarship program back.
Of course, there is another solution. As Boyd noted shortly after the scholarship amendment failed, if everyone who voted for the amendment were to donate to a scholarship fund, no city money would be needed.
But if you want to give to a scholarship through PEFA, you’ll have to wait – maybe forever. Boyd has said she’ll try again to get a scholarship amendment passed for Anniston, but it’s not clear when. Osborne, the director of PEFA said the organization has not yet discussed an alternate funding source for the scholarship program.
“We’re concentrating on programs that reach students while they're still in K-12,” she said. “We haven’t discussed a scholarship program that is funded by sources other than the city.”