Jackson County Opinions...

APRIL 2, 2003



Column
By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
April 2, 2003

Retreat Provided A Good Start
On Cooperation
The past weekend was absolutely gorgeous in the mountains, hardly the time to be locked away with two warring factions trying to find peace. But it fell my lot to cover the first "joint retreat" of the Commerce Board of Education and the Commerce City Council.
While these two groups don't quite rival the Hatfields and the McCoys, in recent years the trend has been toward petty politics that keep the groups angry at each other and taxpayers and citizens shaking their heads in dismay. Frankly, it didn't seem promising as I followed an ice truck across the mountains from Clayton to the home of the Georgia Mountain Fair.
At 9:00 Friday morning, Sherri Lawless of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government convened the group, which at that point consisted of BOE members Steve Perry, Bill Davis, Mary Seabolt and Paul Sergent, Superintendent Larry White and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Nancy Baird. Lawless was worrisome. Tall, thin, with a tendency to squint, she's one of those who can't talk without using her hands. She looked like she might explode momentarily.
At 2:00, the city council arrived and Lawless began a sort of family therapy session, asking the men and women to define what "success" in the retreat might look like and what they would want for a "joint legacy." Any hostility that might have existed – and there was no evidence of any – gave way to honest, open respectful discussions about – happily – issues that are important to the future of Commerce.
I was impressed. And when the two groups quit at 5:00 to enjoy a joint "social hour" at the bar (no, I did not stick around to count drinks and see who partook), even I could see great potential.
What I noted at the next day's session was that the two groups had broken ranks. Board members and council members mixed and mingled; there was a lot of laughter. There were no political agendas. Unity, at least for the moment, had been achieved.
The test, of course, comes over the upcoming weeks and months. Will both groups be able to resist their political instincts to score a point at the other's expense? Will they be able to give each other benefit of the doubt? And will they follow up on continuing joint meetings and working together to grow the city's tax base?
We'll be able to tell by graduation if the retreat results are holding up. If the city council and school board meet again as proposed, if its economic development teams are named and begin meeting, if the camaraderie is intact and if the city council is on the field at graduation, taxpayers and parents will have cause for optimism.
Others must buy in, particularly City Manager Clarence Bryant, who was not present; also Mayor Charles L. Hardy Jr. and school board member Arthur Lee Pattman, who were also absent. If they do, and if the two groups can stick to the plan, March 28-29, 2003, will have marked a turning point for Commerce.
Give the school board credit for extending the invitation and both groups get high marks for attending in good faith. It was a very good beginning.


Editorials
The Jackson Herald
April 2, 2003

Time to kill CRCT
Everyone supports accountability in public education. Those who run our public schools, from superintendents down to teachers, should all have some standards by which a community can evaluate their effectiveness.
But like so many efforts to reform public schools, the push toward increased accountability under Gov. Roy Barnes went too far. Indeed, it has been a failure.
Last week, the state department of education announced that problems with this year’s CRCT would result in only three grades taking the state-mandated standardized test. The other tests were ruled invalid because some questions had been released on practice tests.
That problem comes on the heels of last year’s testing from which results came back too late to be useful this year.
Obviously, it’s time for state education leaders to re-evaluate their design of standardized testing.
We believe that the CRCT should be killed and that a more traditional nationally-normed test be used in our public schools. Having a state test duplicates the national tests at a cost of millions of dollars. We see no need to have a Georgia-only CRCT when most schools also require one of the national tests.
In addition to duplication, the CRCT has become a tool used by state bureaucrats to force local schools into adopting some controversial curriculum, such as the “new-new” math programs now being phased in at most schools. By manipulating the questions, state education bureaucrats could virtually mandate what textbooks and curriculum local school systems have to use.
Finally, while the CRCT started out to be a pass-fail test for grade level promotions, it soon became obvious to many teaches and local school leaders that under tough rules, one-third or more of our students would be retained a grade. Because of that, administrators say the test was being “dumbed-down” such that it was no longer meaningful as a measure of student performance.
Like many other parts of Gov. Barnes education reform efforts, the CRCT began with good intentions, but had terrible execution.
It’s time to end that fiasco and kill the CRCT in our public schools.

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Column
By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
April 2, 2003

Lawsuit the only recourse to stop BOC mess
I am not a lawyer and I don’t play one on TV. But if the taxpayers of Jackson County want to stop their county government from one of the largest financial boondoggles of the decade, they should band together and sue the Jackson County Board of Commissioners.
I’m speaking, of course, about the BOC’s plans for a new courthouse on Darnell Road. That board has two political goals related to the project that should make every taxpayer’s blood boil: First, the BOC wants to finance the project without any voter approval from a bond referendum or a SPLOST vote; Second, the BOC wants to fast-track the project this spring in hopes that it will no longer be a political issue in the 2004 elections.
Now, I’m not one who usually advocates litigation as a solution to political problems. Indeed, litigation is expensive and usually the only real winners are the lawyers involved.
But this situation is the exception to those concerns. Indeed, the BOC has left taxpayers little choice but to seek relief in the courts. Public opinion counts for nothing with these commissioners.
So how could a lawsuit work?
I believe how the BOC is seeking to finance their courthosue project is a violation of the Georgia Constitution. Article IX of the state constitution states: “... no such county, municipality, or other political subdivision shall incur any new debt without the assent of a majority of the qualified voters of such county, municipality, or political subdivision voting in an election held for that purpose as provided by law.”
But what the BOC wants to do is bypass that language and voters by building a new courthouse under a lease/purchase arrangement, either through a county building authority, or through the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia.
Basically, the county wants to have the ACCG (or building authority) own the courthouse and the county lease it back with an option to buy at the end of the lease.
That is a common way new equipment is financed by local governments. Indeed, it doesn’t make much sense to have a bond referendum to buy new computers or new police cars.
A new courthouse, however, is very different. According to state law, such lease/purchase contracts are supposed to terminate at the end of every year with the government having no further obligation at the end of the calendar year. Legally, governments are supposed to have the option to walk away from the lease if it chooses to do so.
That is fine for police cars or computers, but is that really feasible with a new courthouse? Does the BOC want taxpayers to believe they aren’t really obligated to make those lease payments? Once a new courthouse is built and occupied, would any future BOC have the choice of just walking away?
It’s a ruse, a shell game that is being played to avoid citizen input and voter approval via a bond referendum.
And that, in my humble opinion, violates both the spirit and intent of the state constitution’s prohibition on a government going into debt without voter approval.
How could the Jackson County BOC ever argue that financing a courthouse with a lease/purchase would be an arm’s length transaction? It was the BOC that purchased the land, hired the architects and hired the contractor. Obviously, this is a project of and by the BOC and county government and it is the intent of the BOC to obligate taxpayers to a debt to pay for it. For the BOC to argue otherwise would be silly.
This issue has been litigated only once that I could find, in 1989 over the purchase of computer equipment. The court held that the city involved did follow the law in that the computer lease contracts could be canceled at the end of the year.
But as far as I know, the lease/purchase of real property, especially a multi-million dollar courthouse, has never been contested in the courts.
Now’s the time for just such a lawsuit.
The truth is, the BOC has other options for paying for this courthouse. It could go to voters with a bond referendum, or it could wait until 2004 and go to voters with a SPLOST vote.
But this board is loathe to do either. County leaders know both would fail because of their own mishandling of this project.
The only way to stop this BOC from obligating taxpayers to such a large debt is to take that board to court and prevent it from entering into a lease/purchase agreement.
Sue the BOC and force it to abide by the intent of the Georgia Constitution — no long-term debt without a taxpayer vote.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.


Editorial
The Commerce News
April 2, 2003

Commerce Watershed Lake Should Be Open
It's kind of hard not to agree with some of the points made in a letter to the editor printed elsewhere that the closing of the Commerce watershed lake to fishing during times of "orange alert" seems excessive.
Granted, Commerce's water supply is certainly an easy target for someone wanting to do damage, but it's hard to envision a scenario where Commerce becomes a target of a terrorist attack and, stretching the imagination to the limits, that the installation of a couple of gates would deter one.
Lakes Hartwell and Lanier, which serve far larger groups and which, as targets, would be more alluring, are open to fishing. The only plausible explanation, and that's carrying the definition of "plausible" to extremes, is some fear about terrorism from the Moslem community out Georgia 326.
The closing of one of the few public fishing lakes in Banks or Jackson counties in the name of homeland security is a classic example of paranoia. The odds of anything in or near Commerce and Jackson County being on the radar screen of terrorist groups are much less than your odds of winning the next Powerball jackpot with a ticket found on the street.
Continuing this train of logic, life in America should come to a standstill whenever an "orange alert" is declared. Certainly any gathering for a professional or college athletic event would be at least as enticing a target as Commerce's reservoir. If the Final Four, the NCAA Basketball tournament finals that expects to attract thousands of fans to New Orleans next year and if the Atlanta Braves can play before tens of thousands every day, surely it is safe to allow fishing in the Commerce watershed lake.
OK, anything is possible in this day and age, but until the larger, high-profile events are canceled, Commerce officials should tell the Georgia Department of Homeland Security to either butt out or to show credible evidence of a threat.
The Commerce watershed lake should be open to the public for legitimate recreational purposes.


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