I’m convinced that Barrow County has more drama per capita than anywhere else in the South. The year 2013 was no exception.
There was drama in the City of Winder with the controversial cleanup of a councilman’s yard; the city council election; and the police department scandal that saw all of its top brass ousted.
And then there was drama in the county government. It was the first year the county operated under the county manager system, so perhaps some drama should have been expected.
But not this much.
County leaders launched an effort to study privatizing some county government functions, a move that stirred up a lot of backlash among county employees. Then county officials got into a high-profile budget fight with the sheriff, a move that was politically untenable for the BOC to sustain. The public also discovered in 2013 that county leaders really don’t do much of a background check of potential high-level employees. A friend-of-a-friend sounds good; let’s hire him.
But the biggest drama in the county government was the quick exit of the county’s first manager after just nine months on the job. It wasn’t a good fit for either party, but the quick change left a dark cloud over the county government’s ability to function effectively.
All of those issues had their moment in the spotlight, but perhaps the biggest issue in Barrow County during 2013 was the continuing saga of its public school system.
Much of the controversy revolved around personality conflicts involving superintendent Wanda Creel and her leadership style. Last week, Creel announced that she is leaving Barrow to become superintendent in Gainesville.
Although a lot of people in the system are glad to see Creel go, her departure won’t solve the more fundamental problems in the school system. The problems in the BCSS are much deeper than any single person:
• The Barrow County School District ranks sixth in the state in the amount of decline of local property values between 2008-2012. Barrow’s 30.4 percent decline in property values has devastated its local revenue stream. Only 26 percent of revenues to the BCSS came from local property taxes in FY2013. Barrow’s local income of $2,127 per student ranked it 145th out of 193 school taxing districts in the state. In the bigger picture, Barrow’s local revenues per student declined over 16 percent between 2002-2012. While the decline in Barrow’s tax digest seems to have hit bottom, there’s little prospect of the digest seeing any kind of major growth in the near future given the lack of industrial development or high-end housing. On a per student basis, Barrow’s tax digest is just $105,400, making it one of the poorest county’s in the state in terms of tax resources per student (the state average is $181,300 per student.) Aside from raising the millage rate, there’s absolutely nothing local officials can do to generate additional local income for the school system.
• While local revenues to the BCSS have dropped, so has state funding. In inflation-adjusted numbers, Barrow’s per student state funds declined 13.8 percent between 2002-2014, an amount that totals nearly $60 million in state cuts over that period. And the state continues to shift more costs to the local system, such as the insurance cost for non-certified employees now being shifted from the state to the local boards of education. There’s not much prospect that the state will increase its funding to local school system and there’s nothing local officials can do to change that.
• Because of a lack of funds, the BCSS spends less per student than just about any other school system in Georgia. Last year, Barrow spent $7,354 per student raking it 172nd in the state out of 190 districts. The state average last year for spending was $8,336 per student. The point is, Barrow doesn’t have much room to cut spending because it’s already among the lowest spenders in the state. (The good news is, the BCSS was in the black last year unlike many other school systems.)
• Barrow’s student population has been getting increasingly poor over the last decade, a reflection of declining demographics in the community. Between 2003-2013, the BCSS saw its economically disadvantaged student population go up by 27.6 percent to above 63 percent. That 63 percent isn’t the worst in the state, but Barrow’s rate of growth of poor students is among the state’s highest. There is a direct link between the wealth of a population and the academic success of its students.
• Barrow County has a large drug abuse problem, an issue that undoubtedly has a negative impact on its students. A community infested with drug abuse is a community that doesn’t much care about education.
• Politically, the management of the BCSS needs streamlining. A 9-member board of education is too large and unwieldy. Most BOE’s have just five members. Having a larger BOE does not equate to having a better school system or to better citizen representation.
• Because of its controversial academic reputation (below average on the SAT and some other major tests) and lack of major athletic success, the BCSS is losing some of its better students to area private schools, home schools and to other nearby public school systems that take out-of-district students. That kind of thing tends to snowball; one student and his/her family comes to like a different school system and that has an influence on their friends. Barrow cannot afford to bleed its strongest students to other schools; that’s a downward spiral and does nothing to improve Barrow County.
The dramas in Barrow County in 2013 leave a lot of questions for 2014. Will the county government find a sense of stability and leadership under a new county manager? Will Winder’s government settle down after its problems of 2013?
But the biggest question of all is: Can a new school superintendent make any headway in pushing the BCSS toward a more positive direction?
Perhaps that is a much bigger job than any single superintendent can do alone. The entire community, not just a new superintendent, will have to make education a priority to change the current direction.
In the big picture, Creel’s departure is just a blip; the underlying problems with the BCSS remain.w
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of the Barrow Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.