I started covering the Bryan County Board of Education in June. Maybe there’s some irony in the fact that I wound up with the beat because of the economy and resulting cutbacks in the newsroom.
I say that because, really, this is a story about the impact an economy in the tank is having on local school boards. Which, by the way, usually keep an eagle eye on the state legislature.
With good reason.
Since 2003, Bryan County Schools alone have been whacked to the tune of some $10 million in state cuts.
And that was before the economy went into meltdown mode but during a time when the student population here grew probably 5 percent a year.
Despite the ‘austerity reductions,’ as they’re known in school circles, the school system managed in large part because the tax digest was moving like a runaway freight train. In 2003 the gross county digest, which doesn’t take into account exemptions but does put a number to growth, was $708,141,423.
By comparison, the 2008 gross digest was $1,311,181,856 and in 2009, $1,356,455,481.
That boom helped the BoE to continue to fund programs that make Bryan Schools one of the better systems in the state, and do it without sticking homeowners with a bill for the difference.
But as we know, times are different now.
The BoE recently enacted a 2 mill rate increase and budget cuts to avoid eliminating popular programs or cutting teachers. Staff has been furloughed. And with state lawmakers in Atlanta looking at ways to share even more bad budget news, it’s understandable that the BoE finally said enough is enough. The Board called a meeting March 5, where it issued a resolution opposing a handful of bills making the rounds in the state capitol.
It's a typical resolution in style and language. It contains 13 points, 11 of which are preceded by “WHEREAS.”
For example: “WHEREAS, severe cuts in state funding over the most recent nine fiscal years have shifted the burden of funding dramatically from the state to local taxpayers ...”
Or: "WHEREAS, the aforementioned proposed legislation would diminish state and local funding and would erode local control of public schools;”
I suspect you get the drift.
Among the bills opposed by the Bryan County BoE are Senate Bill 361, which would expand a voucher program and could mean less state funding for public school systems. And House Bill 615, which extends the areas where people with permits can tote guns -- and doesn't exclude schools from those areas.
Also opposed are House Bills 995 and 1097, which if passed would require that schools start after Sept. 1 or Labor Day.
It's hard stuff for local school boards to swallow, and the Bryan BoE decided to address all of it at once, while also offering official support to legislation that it believes would give local districts more flexibility.
“The board chose to do it this way instead of piece by piece and individually,” said Superintendent John Oliver, who noted he appreciated the board’s willingness to take a stand. “I believe it may have more impact done this way.”
Word is that it may have helped change a few minds already, though when it comes to politicians one can never tell. After all, the Georgia General Assembly could decide to invade Tennessee tomorrow and it probably wouldn't raise many eyebrows, even in Tennessee.
But even if the BoE's resolution falls largely on deaf ears, there are some things that needed to be said to those who write the laws. For example, District 5 member Judy Crosby said she found HB 615 troubling.
“To me that is in violation of our policy concerning weapons of any kind on school property,” she said, “and in this day and time we need to do everything possible to make sure our schools are safe not only for our students, but for everyone on school property.”
Yes m'am, you're right. And Oliver said much the same.
“While I agree with the premise that ‘when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns,’ I personally do not believe that there is a rationale for a lay person to be carrying a gun into school or church,” he said.
The state’s largesse with other people’s money also concerns local officials. They quite rightly ask why the state is slashing education funding with one hand, while with the other its representatives are writing bills that if passed will cost local systems more to implement.
“We feel that with the budget cuts as they are, no legislation that adds additional expenditures should be put in place,” said BoE Chairman Eddie Warren, whom Oliver credited with coming up with the idea of a resolution.
Veteran BoE member Mary Warnell, who represents the school board on state and national groups, is probably the best informed person on such issues in Bryan County and regularly keeps the school board up to speed on the wider world.
Warnell said she recently asked a not-so-rhetorical question at a recent Georgia School Board Association district meeting in Statesboro.
“Considering the current condition of the economy nationally, and especially in our state and local communities, why would our legislature consider passing any bill that increases operating costs at this time ...?”
That led to discussion of contacting state lawmakers to express concerns, which eventually turned into a written resolution signed by each BoE member.
“Many times a bill may sound simple to implement locally but there are so many hidden costs,” Warnell said. “Because of the current state of the economy, I feel there should be a moratorium enacted to stop imposing additional costs to schools and agencies and the time to act is now."
And that means now, the ball is back in the state legislature's court. Things could change today, tomorrow, next week. But give the Bryan BoE credit for standing up for what it thinks is best for Bryan County Schools. Because that's really another way of saying Bryan County's kids.