Jackson County Opinions...

SEPTEMBER 15, 2004



Column
By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
September 15, 2004

A Coup At The Board Of Education
Have four members of the Commerce Board of Education suddenly grown backbones? After years of being dominated by Chairman Steve Perry, the school board revolted this week and over Perry’s objections hired supposedly-resigned Superintendent Larry White to a three-year contract extension.
I can’t remember the last time the school board had a split vote, much less a bonafide publicly expressed difference of opinion. But Monday night, members Bill Davis, Arthur Lee Pattman and Paul Sergent staged a coup. Mary Seabolt was absent due to illness.
White resigned last spring, effective at the end of this school year, and the school board was well into a search for his replacement. At some point, push finally came to shove and a majority of the board decided to keep White around.
It should be a popular decision. White is well-regarded in the school system, at City Hall and by the public.
White’s decision to resign followed by some months Perry’s narrow re-election to another four-year term. Most people familiar with the system believe he’d never have submitted his resignation had Perry lost the election. Perry says the issue is about money.
The issue is about control. Perry had it; now the other members of the school board are trying to take charge. Speculation is that Perry will be replaced as chairman in January.
Perry has made a number of moves that attracted attention, and sometimes derision. He led the charge to get the Commerce City Council removed from the CHS graduation ceremony, which the board reversed within a year. He took the lead when the school board went to Unicoi State Park to vote to get the city council to increase its salary. He at one time ordered White to have no discussion with elected officials, and after his 2003 re-election, he made a point of confronting school personnel he thought were against him. Last week, he pushed successfully to relocate the communications tower at the new middle school because he didn’t like its location. That cost the system more than $6,300, was never discussed in public and was voted on in a work session after an hour and a half closed session.
For all of that, there was never a crack in the facade put forward to the public that the Cleavers are one happy family. The school board apparently hashes out any differences in its monthly closed-to-the-public session, specific reasons for which are never provided. One of the most noteworthy things about the coup attempt is that it did not take place behind closed doors, and that is because Perry wanted the public to hear how much White will be paid under the new agreement.
The public has perceived that the Commerce Board of Education is Perry and four yes-men. Monday night’s meeting is an indication that the situation is changing to distribute authority more equally.
Perry is the board member most interested and outspoken about improving the school system, but that doesn’t mean he should have total authority. Monday’s meeting suggests he does not. That change will be well-received by the public.


Editorials
The Commerce News
September 15
, 2004

School Bond Issue Deserves Voter Support
Voters who live in the Jackson County School District are being asked to approve a $70 million bond issue next Tuesday to fund the construction of new schools.
There is no question that the schools are needed. Every part of Jackson County is growing rapidly. The high school is overcrowded, a couple of new elementary schools must soon be built and a new middle school is needed – plus, some schools need more classrooms. In fact, officials expect the system population to double by 2010 – six years from now.
For years, the special purpose local option sales tax (SPLOST) that goes for education has helped keep up with growth, but that is no longer the case. In one of America’s fastest-growing counties, sales tax revenue alone can’t keep up with population growth.
Passing the bond issue means adding a maximum of 2.9 mills of property taxes to retire the debt, making it a tough decision for many voters. The good news is that as the tax digest grows, that millage rate will come down, spreading the cost of retiring the bonds among new residents, businesses and industry.
Voters should be proud to support their county school system, just as they always have in the past. The Jackson County School System has become an excellent local system and its high school in particular has a strong all-around curriculum combining vocational, academic and fine arts programs second to none. On Sept. 21, voters will be asked to ensure that quality education for our children continues. We expect them to pass the bond issue overwhelmingly because the need is great and the education of our children is the most important thing we can provide for their future and the future of Jackson County.

Good To Delay Vote
It’s probably a good thing that the Jackson County government got caught with its pants down on preparing for the next special purpose local option sales tax (SPLOST) referendum. The county waited too long to begin the planning and was unable to meet the deadline for preparing a ballot for the Nov. 2 election.
First, there was a good chance that voters, still peeved at county government, would have rejected the SPLOST, which would have been a disaster. Second, the new board of commissioners has a chance to shape the SPLOST ballot to meet the needs as it perceives them.
For example, the proposed mix of uses for the SPLOST completely left out water and sewer work. Without SPLOST funds, the growth of the county water and sewerage system will grind to a halt. Coupled with the loss of a major portion of its territory to the new shared services agreement, that might have doomed the Jackson County Water and Sewerage Authority.
In addition, the need for a new jail is paramount and SPLOST is a potential funding source. Also, since the courthouse is not legally a capital asset, use of SPLOST funds to pay off the bonds may be illegal, which would cost taxpayers half a mill of ad valorem taxes but free up sales tax funds for other uses.
To be sure, there are a lot more potential uses for the tax than its estimated $7 million per year can cover, and since most of those expenses cannot be avoided, passage of the SPLOST referendum is crucial not just to the county government, but to the municipalities that share in the proceeds.
Public officials will need the extra four months to remind voters of the consequences should the SPLOST referendum fail. This referendum is about the best way to fund critical public projects, not about faith (or lack thereof) in county government.

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Column
By Kerri Testement
The Jackson Herald
September 15, 2004

Wal-Mart working on image overhaul
The chipper, smiling yellow face happily touting Wal-Mart’s “everyday low prices” in national commercials has taken a back seat lately to a new advertising campaign.
Tired of the negative news stories, commentaries and rants, officials at the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer are taking a new aggressive approach to improve its deplorable public relations situation.
Wal-Mart’s image in the eyes of the American consumer is slowly becoming all that’s wrong in the world of corporate giants — rich heirs benefiting from underpaid workers, locally-operated businesses being squeezed out of the market and empty urban “big boxes” where the retailer was located before it opted to move to a “greener pasture.”
And yet, the company still has customers pouring through its doors at any store in America at any hour of the day.
So, why spend millions of dollars on an advertising campaign to make you, the consumer, “feel better” about Wal-Mart?
Because, in the long-run, the retail behemoth is just as capable of losing your business as any other company — even with the “everyday low prices.”
Wal-Mart’s latest commercials are subtly addressing the negative attacks — and they don’t even mention low prices or selection of goods and services.
One commercial addresses the attack that Wal-Mart invades a neighborhood with its “big-box stores” and abandons the area when it decides to build an even bigger store (usually one of the chain’s Supercenters) in another neighborhood.
The commercial has residents praising Wal-Mart for “revitalizing” its deteriorating downtown with a more vibrant commercial center, while providing a needed boost to the local economy with jobs and income.
The commercial comes at a time when residents in one California city with “anti-sprawl” views successfully defeated Wal-Mart’s attempt to build a 220,000 square-foot Supercenter. And they won that battle through the ballot box.
But, Wal-Mart didn’t go down with an aggressive fight. The company reportedly spent over a half million dollars to tell voters its side of the story.
Like it or not, Wal-Mart always brings millions of tax dollars to the local economy — and that has some politicians scrambling to entice the retailer to come to their community, while some of their constituents are grumbling at such proposals.
Another attempt to clean-up Wal-Mart’s public relations mess includes the retailer telling consumers about its contributions to local communities.
Wal-Mart claims its stores donated $150 million to charities last year, while customers and associates raised an additional $70 million. That’s still a paltry figure when you realize the company earned $9.1 billion in net profit last year.
(For that matter, I should say that I was a recipient of a Sam Walton scholarship during my senior year of high school.)
Despite Wal-Mart’s efforts to improve its image (while others are trying to tear it down), the company still neglects one simple fact that I, a consumer, don’t like about Wal-Mart — I just don’t like shopping there.
I can’t help but feel frustrated, claustrophobic, paranoid or angered every time I shop at Wal-Mart. The aisles are too cramped, the store promotes chaos and the front door associate is usually the only friendly face among its staff.
If Wal-Mart wants to truly reform its image in the public’s eye, it’s needs to work on making the customer feel valued and respected in its stores again. These expensive advertising and public relations campaigns are pointless without real change happening for Wal-Mart customers and employees.
Kerri Testement is a reporter for MainStreet Newspapers, Inc. Her e-mail address is kerri@mainstreetnews.com.


Editorials
The Jackson Herald
September 15
, 2004

Quality leadership is reason to support bond vote
Next week, many Jackson County voters will get a chance to determine the future of the Jackson County School System. At issue will be the largest bond referendum vote ever held in Jackson County, $70 million for a new high school, a new middle school and other expansion projects at several elementary schools.
We have looked at the plans for these projects and believe they will be a sound investment for the county’s future.
But it is a lot of money and for that reason, some voters have expressed reservations about approving the measure.
For one thing, it would mean a property tax hike of around 2.9 mills this year. Some have said the school system should find other ways to pay for the new buildings, such as impact fees.
We agree that 2.9 mills is no small tax increase. However, the school system doesn’t have any other options. Impact fees cannot be used for schools in Georgia and the education sales tax is already being consumed by previous projects.
Unlike city or county governments, school systems have very few options for funding. What schools don’t get from state and federal sources has to come from local dollars. Unfortunately, that means property taxes.
While the initial hit of 2.9 mills is painful, we would point out that in the coming years as the size of the county’s tax digest grows, that rate will drop. Development, residential and commercial, will add to the tax base and over time, this bond millage will decrease.
Another concern which has been discussed is the atmosphere of tremendous political upheaval which has been going on in the county. There is a lot of uncertainty in the minds of many citizens about the financial direction of the county government.
Indeed, that is a problem. But those problems stem from the county’s board of commissioners, not its boards of education. It would be unfair, we believe, to judge this bond issue in the light of other county problems. This bond issue must stand, or fall, on its own merits and should not be tainted by other, unrelated politics.
In the larger picture, we believe the reason citizens should support this bond referendum is because the county school system today has quality leadership to make the most of how those dollars are spent.
Indeed, under the direction of the Jackson County Board of Education and superintendent Andy Byers, the county school system has perhaps the best leadership of any public institution in the county.
And that is the critical issue here. Growth in Jackson County is not going to stop. The classrooms proposed in this bond issue will have to be built, if not now, then later.
So the question is, do we build these schools today under what we believe are strong, competent, quality leaders, or do we wait until some time in the future under perhaps a less adept group of school officials?
This bond issue is a lot of money. Given that, we believe it would be better to trust today’s leadership in the expenditure of those funds rather than wait and gamble on the future. Today’s school leaders have a solid track record; who knows how that may change in the years to come.
In this issue, leadership tilts the balance. And it is for that reason that we support a “Yes” vote on next Tuesday’s county school system bond referendum.


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