Madison County School Superintendent Allen McCannon urged local legislators Dec. 16 to look out for rural school systems, adding that the outlook for systems such as Madison County’s is bleak without more support from lawmakers.
“Rural counties without interstate or industry are on the verge of losing their school systems,” said McCannon.
McCannon, assistant superintendent Bonnie Knight and 15 Madison County educators addressed Sen. Frank Ginn, Rep. Alan Powell and Rep. Tom McCall in the county school board meeting room in a two-hour meeting Monday. They voiced concerns about budget cuts, furlough days — there are 10 this school year, the effect of a shortened school year on children, increased insurance costs and a general decline in respect toward the teaching profession.
The superintendent noted that Madison County ranks 160th out of 180 school systems in terms of property wealth. He likened the system’s revenue situation to a poor south Georgia county. And he said continued “austerity cuts” — funding that falls short of the state’s own formulas — is forcing cuts that are harming Madison County more than other systems.
“Do you know that the fairness of the austerity cut is a myth?” said McCannon. “The value of a mill in Rabun County is $1,637,312 and their austerity cut is $853,645. With a half mill of tax, Rabun County can cover their entire austerity cut. In Madison County, the value of our $3.7 million austerity cut is 5.6 mills.”
McCannon said poor systems are being told to raise property tax rates to offset their reduced support from the state.
“Top ranking officials in the controlling party are telling rural districts that they do not want to hear from them until their millage rates are at 20,” said McCannon. “These are the same individuals who state they are against all tax increases.”
He noted that property tax bases of rural and urban counties are very different.
“In metro counties, individuals with low income do not own large pieces of land,” said McCannon. “In rural counties, individuals with little income own rather large pieces of land.”
McCannon asked legislators to consider several recommendations, such as “not allowing metro systems to control the state” and “maxing austerity cuts at three mills for all systems.”
“This (maxing austerity cuts) would only cost the state $77 million,” said McCannon. “This would lower our austerity by $1.1 million.”
McCannon said “equalization funds,” which help level the playing field between poor and rich school systems in Georgia, are vital to Madison County, but he said he’s perplexed by recent shifts of those funds to metro schools.
“Everyone admits that low-wealth districts like Madison County should not be sending equalization dollars to counties like Gwinnett and Henry, but no one is recommending change,” said the superintendent. “We are very thankful for the $3.9 million in equalization funds that we receive. We could not survive without it.”
McCannon asked that lawmakers consider a one-cent state sales tax for education that is applied to systems based on their number of students. And he also urged the three legislators to “acknowledge that you have General Assembly members who are against public education and want to see it fail.”
The superintendent stressed that rural systems need to be able to retain good teachers. He said school systems can only truly serve children if they keep quality teachers.
“If things do not change, the performance of rural systems will suffer,” said McCannon. “Six or eight years down the road, some legislature member will be pushing vouchers and criticizing the performance of rural, low-wealth districts. How can we continue to attract the best by telling people that we are going to pay you around $5,000 less and work you much harder?”
Knight talked to lawmakers about the hits non-certified staff members, such as bus drivers, cafeteria workers, parapros and custodians, are enduring, particularly with the state putting more and more insurance funding on their backs. She said 26 employees recently dropped insurance coverage because they could no longer afford it.
“It was not a happy time,” said Knight. “…I’d like for us to have better alternatives for health care next year.”
Fifteen educators took the podium Monday, too, with many echoing McCannon’s concerns.
Janna Bates, a fourth grade math and science teacher at Danielsville Elementary School, said the “impact of furlough days has been stressful.”
“I’ve picked up two other jobs just to compensate my losses,” she said. “The other two jobs are within the education field, too, and I pray they won’t be cut.”
She said she’s also working at Athens Tech and sees that “the amount of people going into education has dropped tremendously.”
Several teachers shared Bates’ concern about the future of teaching, particularly in Madison County, where insurance costs continue to rise and furlough days are cutting into pay.
“People who are motivated and intelligent know a raw deal when they see one and they’re going to look elsewhere,” said high school teacher Kyle Cooper.
He urged lawmakers to make sure bright people want to join the teaching profession.
“Look to fund future potential teachers,” said Cooper. “If you want the great minds in education, they need the motivation to be there….A good way for our teachers to feel like they’re getting into a respected field is if our lawmakers and politicians and people who work in our government start to reflect the sentiment that going into education is a respectable choice and that we are respectable citizens.”
Several teachers focused mostly on the impact cuts in Madison County are having on children.
Patricia Carey, media specialist at Comer Elementary School, said a shortened school year hurts students.
“Cuts in funding for education look very differently when you focus on how they effect our primary stakeholders, our children,” said Carey. “Is it in the best interest of the children at Comer Elementary School to cut the school calendar? Absolutely not. A shortened school year negatively impacts the amount of instructional time available to students. Think about this, if we lost only eight days for only five years, that would equal two-and-a-half months of instruction time. In a time where students are held to higher standards, that’s just not fair.”
She added that increased class sizes hurt students too.
“This leads to additional time spent on classroom and behavior management, ultimately taking valuable time away from learning,” said Carey.
Sheree´ Greene, a second grade teacher at Ila Elementary School, said funding cuts ultimately hurt students not just educationally, but emotionally.
“Students miss not just instruction, but school is a haven now for many of our students,” said Greene. “When they are not attending, it doesn’t just affect them educational part of it, but also emotionally.”
Ashley Drake, a fifth grade teacher at Colbert Elementary School, stressed similar points.
“Our students are being challenged with a more rigorous curriculum with increasingly high-stakes testing,” said Drake. “While we welcome that rigor, and we believe in our students’ capabilities, it’s not fair to face these demands and be held to the same standards a students that have more instructional days….Our kids are paying the price. My kids are paying the price and are going to continue to pay the price if we don’t find a way to decrease these cuts.”
Drake said that a lot of teachers are married with husband and wife both working for the system. She noted that furlough days hit those families particularly hard.
“Ten furlough days in our house is 20 furlough days,” she said.
Drake said the cuts have put “teacher morale at an all-time low.” She pointed out several accomplishments of the school system, saying local schools have managed to perform well despite diminished funding.
“Each year, we’re asked to do more with less,” said Drake. “We have risen to that challenge. We’ve served our students to the best of our abilities. Recently the writing scores at the high school had great results. Our graduation rates are on the rise. We’ve had all these great things despite the cuts. Our teachers continue to bear the burden. And the state keeps taking away funds. I feel like if we continue to do that, and continue to do well with the cuts, it just becomes an expectation that they’ll just keep doing it. So I feel like we have to stand up and say that we’re a lot of things, but we’re not magicians. We can’t create things that are not there.”
Drake asked the legislators if they could look into how equalization funds are distributed.
“It’s really disheartening when we get emails that explain that counties like Cobb and Gwinnett get equalization funds that we don’t get,” said Drake. “That doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t add up.”
Tara Thomas, a guidance counselor at Hull-Sanford Elementary School, also urged legislators to take up the issue of equalization funding with fellow lawmakers.
“The question I would love to ask, if I could be in Atlanta when decisions are being made, is to ask someone who lives inside Atlanta is ‘why are we punished because we live in a rural county?’” said Thomas. “I think that’s the consensus of what everybody feels. We come to work and do the same job every day that somebody does in Gwinnett County, or Fulton County, or Cobb County. The underlying question is, ‘is there not a way to figure out how to put us all on the same page in the state?’”
All three legislators — Ginn, Powell and McCall — addressed the educators Monday.
McCall said he understood the frustrations of teachers, pointing out that his wife is a kindergarten teacher of 30 years.
“The things you’re telling me are the things I hear every day,” he said. “I understand where you’re coming from and it worries me.”
Ginn said development is key. He said counties must welcome business and be “business friendly” to help bring in needed revenues. He urged teachers to shop locally to support their businesses, which will bring in more tax money for local school systems and county governments.
“You do make decisions on where you shop and where you go to buy things,” said Ginn. “Anything you can do to help support your local economy will help.”
Powell said that he is a product of public schools. He said not everyone can afford a private school education and that communities need good public schools. He said there are those in Atlanta who don’t want public schools to succeed.
“Allen said it correctly,” said Powell of McCannon’s earlier statement. “There are some folks there who would like to destroy the public education system. The alternative is disarray in this country and especially this state.”
Powell said governments must look at ways to bring in more revenues and cut expenses. He said additional forms of legalized gambling could bring in more money for education. He said Georgia’s prison costs are over $1 billion a year “and growing,” adding that much of that cost could be reduced through different sentencing for non violent crimes.
He urged teachers to write letters to the editor, to speak to people about the needs of educators and children, and to create public support to get necessary changes in public schools.
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