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Columbia County School Superintendent Charles Nagle has never been one to mince words, but he’s been especially blunt now that he’s retiring. In a world overflowing with weasel-wording politicians, it’s refreshing to see someone willing to cut through the tangle of nonsense.

In that spirit, let’s be blunt: For Columbia County’s School Board, facing a nearly $5 million budget deficit heading into next year, there no longer are any easy answers. There is no fairy dust, no low-hanging fruit painlessly waiting to be plucked. They know it, and anyone who has spent any time actually reviewing the school budget knows it. That’s why they seem poised to fill the gap with a tax increase.

We don’t like it. And they don’t either.

While Columbia County’s economy is doing better than most, with robust commercial growth trying to keep up with staggering population increases, there are obvious worries for many of our residents: stagnant pay, furloughs, rising insurance costs.

Count among them the loyal people who teach our children. Like many others in the public and private sectors, they’ve taken those exact personal financial hits even as they struggle to keep up with a student population that grows each year by the equivalent size of a small elementary school.

A tax hike of any kind, especially at this time, is bitter medicine. And Nagle rightly asserts that taxpayers ultimately need to place the blame for any local increase squarely on state officials who have continued to shirk their share of support for constitutionally mandated public education while doling out special-interest tax breaks – including those to less-accountable private schools.

Nagle contends if state officials want to kill the public school system, they’re already doing a good job of it. But they ought to at least have the guts to call for a constitutional amendment to eliminate public education rather than slowly strangling it.

It’s long past time the state realign its spending priorities to take care of the basic needs of public education. Unfortunately that hope, like the many naive suggestions for easy fixes to complicated budget challenges, remain mired in fantasy. Columbia County’s school system has to operate in the real world – and that means balancing the books, now.

The easy ideas, and choices, are long gone.

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