Jackson County Opinions...

September 6, 2000

By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
September 6, 2000

Excluding The Public From Public Meetings
You may have read Jana Adams' column on this page last week about closed meetings. I appropriated it from The Jackson Herald because it applies here. Also in last week's Herald, Adam Fouche wrote on the subject of closed meetings.
So, you've probably figured out that we newspaper folk don't like closed meetings.
Actually, we don't like meetings at all, whether they're open or closed. But that's part of our jobs, attending these functions where decisions are supposedly made. And when folks go behind closed doors to discuss the public's business in private, we wonder why.
Jana has to cover the Commerce Board of Education, which has a long tradition of holding long closed sessions. I used to cover those meetings, but someone decided they should be held on the same night as Commerce Council meetings, and I can't be two places at once.
It goes without saying that I was crushed to have to give up that beat.
The BOE always has a closed session, and it never gives a specific reason for not being public with the public's business. Someone reads a list of all the items that could legally be discussed in a closed session, but they consistently refuse to say which items were discussed.
The Commerce City Council seldom has a closed session, mainly because Mayor Charles L. Hardy Jr. has a background in newspapers and dislikes closed meetings himself. I cover BJC Medical Center. It seldom has closed meetings, but all the real decisions are made in committee meetings where the press is absent.
Both the Jackson County Water and Sewerage Authority and the Upper Oconee Basin Group, which I cover, have occasional closed sessions, generally to discuss litigation or acquisition of property, both legitimate reasons. I've trained the basin authority to behave, and members have been accommodating.
I also cover the Commerce Area Business Association and the Jackson County Area Chamber of Commerce. Since our organization is a member of both, they'd have a hard time kicking me out of a meeting, but neither has shown an inclination to secrecy. Members of the Commerce Library Board are still not used to having a reporter on hand, but they've never seen a need yet to go into hiding.
The Nicholson City Council had a closed session or two that were questionable. I'm willing to let one questionable closed session slip by, but not two.
Most people who care about what's going on in local government rely on our newspapers to find out, so we take umbrage when the town council or board of education closes the door. When they lock us out, they're excluding the public.
There's no quicker way to get us suspicious about what is going on than to conduct public business in secret. There are legitimate reasons to hold closed sessions, but when a body like the Commerce Board of Education consistently devotes a large percentage of each meeting to excluding the public, we get the feeling that it is hiding something.
It's ironic that groups that supposedly solicit public input feel the need to exclude the public from so much. What are we to think?

The Jackson Herald
September 6, 2000

Questioning teen birth, pregnancy numbers
When a local hospital official questioned teen birth rate numbers in Jackson County presented by the Northeast Georgia Health District recently, he was on target. While we don't want to underplay the issue of teen pregnancy, we also don't want to see the problem overstated either.
One of the problems in getting a handle on that issue is to examine exactly what is being reported. There is a vast difference, for example, in reporting teen pregnancy and teen births. Not all pregnancies result in a birth - abortions and miscarriages account for the difference.
It's also important to define what is meant by "teen" births or pregnancies. Not all teen births are to unmarried women. A 19-year-old married woman having a child is far different than a 15-year-old unmarried girl having a child. To lump both of those together creates a distorted view of the issue.
Finally, we have to be cautious about reporting birth or pregnancy "rates." A statistical "rate" is one number shown in relation to another number, so it's important to know exactly what is being compared.
Having qualified all of that, just what is the picture on teenage pregnancies and births in Jackson County? Although we don't yet have the 1998 numbers reported by the health district, numbers from 1997 and before indicate that in reality, both the actual number and overall rate of teen births and pregnancies is declining.
The key to look at in analyzing this is the number and rate of births to unwed teen mothers. In 1997, there were 54 births to unwed teen mothers. That was down from 73 births to unwed teens in 1995. In addition, those 54 births in 1997 made up only 8.8 percent of all births in Jackson County, a percentage which has dropped since the early 1990s. Moreover, those unwed teen births were only one-third of all unwed births in Jackson County for 1997. The larger problem isn't unwed teen mothers, but rather unwed births to older women in Jackson County.
But the actual births are only part of the picture. Although only 54 children were born to unwed teen mothers in 1997, there were 115 pregnancies among females ages 10-19. Some of those were obviously to married women and some were aborted or resulted in miscarriages. The rate for those 115 pregnancies was 45.7 per 1,000 female teens in Jackson County. That isn't the lowest rate in the area, but it isn't the highest either.
Obviously, any pregnancy of an unwed teen could lead to a number of other social, educational and health problems. Children having children isn't something we as a society should encourage.
But we question the validity of the health district's reported numbers. To get the total picture, all of the teen pregnancy and birth statistics should be compiled and reported together. In addition, those numbers should be shown over time so the community could get a sense of the overall trend.
It's our sense that since 1995, Jackson County teen births and teen pregnancies have declined both in absolute numbers and in the overall rate.
Maybe that wasn't true in 1998, but you can hardly figure that out from the skimpy report done two weeks ago by district health officials.

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By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
September 6, 2000

School vouchers: a rising issue
If there is one issue that appears to be a central theme of this fall's elections, it is the idea of school vouchers. From the presidential race all the way down to school board races, the issue of school vouchers is being debated and discussed.
Earlier this week, I did a worldwide web search using the phrase "school vouchers." One search engine found 1.3 million sites. Even allowing for overlapping search results, school vouchers are undoubtedly a hot topic on the web.
I've never been a proponent of school vouchers. Vouchers always seemed like a simplistic idea to a complex problem.
But now I'm having second thoughts. Maybe the use of school vouchers would indeed introduce a level of competition that would force some major changes in public schools.
There isn't a clear-cut argument for either side of the debate. Like a lot of others, I'm still looking at the entire issue.
So in the interest of debate, the following is a pro vs. con look at the school voucher issue. If you'd like to weigh in on the debate, email me at MikeB21081@aol.com and I'll be happy to publish your thoughts in a future issue.

1. School vouchers would increase competition in education, forcing public schools to change. By allowing students to move into private schools with tax dollars, public schools would have to become more focused on education reform in order to keep their best students. Voucher supporters say that without the element of competition, no real reform will take place in public schools.
2. School vouchers would lead to more parental involvement in education. If parents had their choice of schools, and the power to control where their education dollars were spent, they would be induced to become more involved in their child's education. There is little doubt that parental involvement is one key to academic success.
3. School vouchers would lead to the growth of new private schools with various kinds of focuses. Rather than educating children in the "big box" of public education, the growth of these private schools would allow children to focus on particular areas of interest and be in an environment with like-minded children.
4. School vouchers allow parents who live in a district with poor public schools to put their children in a better school. A recent study bolstered that argument by showing that low-income black students in several urban areas performed better when put in a private school setting.
5. Many political leaders are hypocritical on school vouchers. They oppose vouchers, but send their own children to private schools. Shouldn't other parents have that choice?

1. Public tax dollars should not be used for private schools, especially schools that teach with a religious bent. To put public money into a private church school, for example, would amount to the state supporting religion.
2. School vouchers would cause a flight of the better students from public schools, leaving behind the poor and those in need of expensive special education. Public schools would become a second-rate system of education.
3. Putting public money into private schools would open the door for more government regulation of private schools. If the government funds it, history shows that government wants to control it.
4. School vouchers wouldn't make much difference because they wouldn't cover all the costs of private tuition. In addition, some private schools would raise their standards to keep out "undesirable" students. The net effect would be to only help those already in private schools without really adding very many other students.
5. School vouchers would be open to abuse. Would home schools count as a "private" school? What standards and accountability would be in place to make sure the funds are used correctly?
6. Public schools aren't as bad as critics say. Given the wide variety of students public schools are mandated to accept, they do a fairly good job. In addition, public education serves a useful social purpose of bringing together children from various economic, social and ethnic backgrounds.
For more research on school vouchers, take a look at the following web sites:
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.

The Commerce News
September 6, 2000

Planning Commission Is On The Right Track
The Commerce Planning Commission is right to push for a subdivision ordinance that requires developers to provide open space ­ in exchange for which they would be allowed to cluster houses on smaller lots.
Clustering of houses makes the installation of infrastructure ­ water, sewer, electric lines, etc. ­ less expensive. Clearing of lots is cheaper, and the shorter roads are less costly. The open space provides recreation and retains the rural atmosphere.
Planning commission vice chairman Greg Perry insists that developers install "neighborhoods, not subdivisions," and Perry's comments are valid. The large-lot developments that have become so common discourage neighbors from being neighbors. Clustered housing lets people be in contact with their neighbors.
The major challenge to cluster development is to make the lots small enough to achieve the neighborhood effect but large enough to meet homeowners' needs. Principally, that means space to park three cars and an RV or boat. Some of the small-lot neighborhoods in Commerce have a cluttered look because short driveways and two-car garages cannot contain the vehicles. The result is that vehicles are parked in front yards, side yards and on roadsides, detracting from the appearance of the development.
Whatever ordinance comes out of the city's efforts will have a long-lasting effect on how this community looks in five, 10 and 25 years. As growth accelerates and the demand for housing rises, should this city settle for the sprawl that characterizes residential growth in northeast Georgia? Members of the Commerce Planning Commission say we should demand that developers use a little imagination to design developments that will retain the rural, small-town character. They're absolutely correct.

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