Jackson County Opinions...

March 13, 2002



Column
By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
March 13, 2002

Bush Is Right;
War On Terror Is Just Starting
Don't count me as a supporter of President George Bush.
But in his remarks on the six-month anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, even I could find points of agreement, the main one being that the war on terrorism will be ongoing.
In fact, it will never be over, and while the public might buy into this in theory, and while the politicians predict that another "Sept. 11" is likely, the public appears to have hit the snooze control on the "war on terrorism."
We follow the events in Afghanistan, bemoan the evil on both sides in the Middle East, but the focus in America is on the supposedly-recovering economy, though it too is tied to the ups and downs of the war on terrorism. The "recovery" now said to be under way would disappear in a heartbeat if a 747 plowed into the Sears Tower or the Empire State Building tomorrow.
Consider: virtually every so-called expert expects another major terrorist attack on this country. We're talking nuclear or biological or chemical – something that could kill tens of thousands and make Sept. 11 look like little more than an opening skirmish.
What has changed since Sept. 12? Nothing. We've diminished Al Qaida's strength, perhaps disrupted its organization. We've not caught bin Laden, not given Muslim or other extremist groups any less reason to hate us and, in fact, in declaring the "Axis of Evil," have broadened the so-called war. It can be argued that our response in Afghanistan has served notice that anyone who attacks us can expect a massive response, but few people think that will deter the kind of people willing to strap dynamite to themselves to accomplish their objectives. We are a little less vulnerable to airplane hijackings, but in our open society, the targets are plenty.
So, I concur when Bush says the war will go on. I'm not confident in his strategy and am less hopeful the world will (or should) support him in military actions against recognized governments around the globe, but the events of Sept. 11 served notice that the rules of engagement and survival have changed. We are in the beginning stage of figuring out how to respond to this challenge – we still view Sept. 11 as a single event, not as an escalation in terror's assault on civilization.
The difficulty is in adjusting to a guerrilla war on the home front, balancing the openness of our society against the need to protect the homeland. We're sorting out how to counter the threat without losing what we're working to protect. Striking the appropriate balance will require the wisdom of Solomon. So will deciding how to go after groups abroad; we can't just send the calvary (or cruise missiles) into other countries at will. In the months and years ahead, there will be national debate on how to respond to threats or incidents and how to prevent them in the future.
We’re new at this. We’ll make mistakes. We’ll get discouraged, hopeful, overconfident in turn, but there is no choice but to go on. We are in a new kind of war, one maybe without end. On that, I can agree with the Commander In Chief.


Editorial
The Jackson Herald
March 13, 2002

Put Georgia curriculum on a ‘diet’
Headlines in Atlanta newspapers that “Georgia schools get bad report” is nothing new. According to this article, the Georgia curriculum standards are so complex that students are receiving only “shallow” instruction in many subjects.
Indeed, in an attempt to be all things to all people, state politicians and bureaucrats have added layer upon layer of curriculum fat to our students’ diet. The result is a bloated system that attempts to do too much with too little.
The report in question, done by Phi Delta Kappa International, an association of teachers and educators, suggests that Georgia put public education standards on a diet and pare down the curriculum.
Unfortunately, that is going to prove difficult. Every subject has its advocates and all too often, curriculum decisions are based on what is politically popular rather than what is educationally important.
For an example of how bloated the system has become, consider that in the months of March and April, students face a battery of standardized tests, from the CRCT to the Stanford 9 to state writing tests. Are all these different standardized tests really necessary?
While there is a proper role for standardized tests in public education, these tests have become the engine that drives school curriculums. Because these tests are heavily based in “concepts” rather than actual knowledge, public school curriculums have become more focused on teaching concepts rather than knowledge.
That may make for better test scores, but it hardly proves that students are actually learning.
We agree that public education should put its curriculum on a diet and focus on fewer items, but teach those items more in-depth and with a goal of having students master one task before moving on to another.
But that won’t happen until state political leaders put learning ahead of standardized test results.

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Column
By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
March 13, 2002

Board can’t control public debate
One of the cornerstones of politics is attempting to control the debate over important issues. Public officials, from the White House down to local leaders, all attempt to manage public debate. The concept is known in media circles as “spinning the message,” hence the term “putting spin” on an issue.
Spinning issues isn’t new to politics, but in recent years it has reached a new level of sophistication. At the national level, one has to read heavily between the lines to really understand what’s going on. Speeches and news releases are heavily laden with code words and “buzz” phrases designed to convey a particular message. Unfortunately, the truth often gets lost in the process.
On the local level, one can see how an attempt by a local government to manipulate the message was done, how it attempted to obscure the truth, and how it has failed. The move by the Jackson County Board of Commissioners to build a new courthouse on Darnell Road is a textbook example of how governments sometimes act to control public debate.
First, by making all of its decisions in secret, the BOC was able to quell dissent before it made its final decision. By keeping its own debate secret, the board presented a united front when it did announce its intentions. By avoiding public input, the board also avoided public debate and the pressure such debate brings to bear.
Second, the board cleverly chose the time, place and conditions in announcing its Darnell Road site. By unveiling the plans on a Wednesday night, and refusing to release any details in advance, the board kept away many of the plans would-be critics, allowing the issue to go unchallenged for at least the next seven days. In addition, by not allowing questions at that meeting, the BOC was able to put its positive spin on the discussion without being challenged.
Third, by soliciting only written feedback, the board attempted to keep a lid on public debate.
Fourth, although the board did finally agree to schedule four public hearings, it has structured those meetings more to present its own message than to hear the feedback of citizens.
Some members of the BOC have reinforced this attempt to control the message several times since the Darnell Road site was first announced. Chairman Harold Fletcher has said that the BOC “welcomes” other ideas and that “no final decision has been made,” although both he and the board have actually agreed among themselves to purchase the Darnell Road site. Last week, Fletcher said he wanted an “intellectual” discussion on the issue without “name-calling.”
While having an “intellectual” debate with Fletcher and his board is something of an oxymoron, it is just another attempt to control the debate. Those who disagree with the board’s plan are labeled as “too emotional” and dismissed.
All of this was a clever plan and has the fingerprints of chairman Fletcher all over it. A long-time politician, Fletcher no doubt led his board down this path of secrecy and its attempts to control the message. Sly like a fox, Fletcher chose before taking office to operate his board in secret as much as possible. He successfully kept his board in lock-step for 14 months, no easy task given the egos involved. And although he has been pulling the strings, Fletcher has also been successful in staying in the background, hiding behind the skirts of his four district commissioners.
But while Fletcher and the BOC attempted to control public debate on the courthouse issue, they failed. The board didn’t anticipate the strong negative public reaction and the depth of feeling that its decision would stir. Attempts to dismiss criticism by saying it came from only a few people in Jefferson was seen as comical by the public. It’s own inept reactions and continued secrecy only enlarged public debate and energized critics.
Now the BOC faces a difficult task. Although a majority of BOC members agree that the Darnell Road site should be pursued, they can hardly do that without pouring gas on an already flaming fire. Yet Fletcher can hardly stand the thought that his months of careful planning would go awry. He’s determined to get his way and has said so by vowing that he and the board “won’t be distracted” from their plans.
Fletcher may have manipulated his board, but in the end he couldn’t manipulate all 40,000 people in Jackson County. He outsmarted himself and in the process, led his board into a “no-spin zone” where harebrained schemes die a very public death.
****
Two members of the BOC, Stacey Britt and Sammy Thomason, have been very curious about the analogy I used last week in labeling their board as a “five-headed Hydra.”
The two, along with Jefferson Mayor Jim Joiner, were debating the Hydra question the other night.
“I don’t know what it is, but it must be pretty good,” Britt said.
“It’s from Revelations,” said Joiner attempting to bring a Biblical perspective to the debate.
Thomason was wisely mum on the question.
As a public service, a photograph of a Hydra is published in this week’s editorial cartoon block on this page.
I guess Greek Mythology isn’t high on the reading list of local politicians.
In the future, I think I’ll stick with sports analogies.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.


Editorial
The Commerce News
March 13, 2002

City Must Think About Balancing Tax Digest
The Commerce Board of Education has sounded the warning that its school population is very rapidly growing. The 500-600 lots in newly-created subdivisions, the increase in residential building permits and the interest in rental construction all back up the school board's projection of adding 700 students by the 2007-2008 school year.
But what is not necessarily understood about this growth projection is the effect it will have on school funding. With no new industry and little new commercial growth, the burden of financing school operations will get increasingly heavy on Commerce taxpayers.
The bottom line is that without commercial and industrial growth to balance residential growth, Commerce is destined to become a bedroom community, home to workers whose children will attend our schools but whose parents will work in businesses and industries that finance schools elsewhere.
Unfortunately, this is viewed as a "school problem" rather than as a community problem. The school board has publicly discussed its growth projections, but aside from limiting enrollment of non-resident children, there is little it can do. The Commerce City Council is content to pass on to the voters whatever tax levy the school board deems necessary and to let the board of education worry over what the future might hold. Because the city's operating funds are derived from the sale of utilities, city council members do not worry about property tax rates. If the tax rates go up, city council members can point out that those rates are set by the Commerce Board of Education.
Residential development will never provide the tax base to finance a quality school system, however. Commerce plans to begin building a new school this year; a new high school is being discussed as well. New buildings mean more staff, more supplies, higher utility bills and all kinds of additional expenses that will not be fully covered by state educational money.
If city council members see that as a "school problem," the voters will one day realize it is a city problem. Commerce officials like to boast that the city's tax rates are among the lowest in the area. In setting itself up as a bedroom community of the future, the Commerce government is laying the groundwork not only losing that low-tax distinction, but also for reversing that position completely.
The school system is doing all it can to prepare for an influx of students; the city council needs to begin giving serious thought to ways by which it can boost its tax digest so the burden will not shift more heavily to residential taxpayers. The city has a department dedicated to preserving its historic downtown; it should spend similar resources developing its industrial tax base.
Commerce may have among the lowest taxes in Jackson County, but look around. Jefferson's industrial tax base long ago surpassed that of Commerce. Jackson County's industrial tax base has grown proportionately. Only Commerce's remains stagnant. If that trend continues, property tax bills in the future will be higher here than anywhere else in the county.
The growth projections have been presented. The evidence of rapid population growth is undeniable. But the matter of how to fund education for all of these new children is in the hands not of the Commerce Board of Education, but of the Commerce City Council. It's time for the city council to accept that responsibility and focus its attention on a strategy that will provide revenue so Commerce children in 2010 and beyond will get the quality schools they deserve.


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