If Columbia County School Superintendent Tommy Price wanted another job, he'd probably do well to work for a financial institution forecasting investment income. He's become the reigning champ at analyzing the county's pupil population growth rate to predict the school system's needs.
Price usually hits pretty close to the mark. For the 2002-03 school year, enrollment came in just 130 students below Price's projections after several years of slowgrowth.
This year was different, however; Price forecast 243 new students, and the system instead got 633. That boom outstrips the growth that the new Lewiston Elementary School was built to accommodate, and make plans for new-school construction even more urgent.
But it also gives rise to another concern often voiced by taxpayers: How many of these new students are supposed to be here?
It costs roughly $6,000 to educate a student in a public school. Those costs are borne through federal and state taxes, and by local taxpayers. About 75 percent of all local tax revenue goes to the school system.
Simply put, people who live in other counties or across the river don't contribute to the county's tax base, and aren't entitled to have their children taught in our schools.
"Zone-jumping" can be an expensive problem, especially for a system already straining to handle its legal population. But Assistant Superintendent Charles Nagle says the problem is "minimal."
"We do not keep a record of the actual number of students who are caught crossing county lines because it really hasn't been an issue," Nagle says. "I can tell you, from my own experience as a principal, the majority of cars we would check with out-of-county tags were parents in company cars who worked elsewhere and lived in Columbia County, or they had moved to our county and had not changed their plates."
There still is strong suspicion that outsiders profit from the high quality of our schools. "Columbia County could hold down the cost of educating its children if it truly only educated its students," one Lewiston grandparent says.
Nagle says most out-of-county transfers are children of school system employees. It's a great perk, but it means a transfer of tax benefits to neighboring counties. How about putting a time limit on such attendance?
Other school systems aren't shrugging off zone-jumping. In Rockdale County, the school system studied hiring a private detective to ferret out zone-jumpers. And McDuffie County is studying ways to toughen up on parents' requirements for proof of residence.
Price predicts there will be 388 additional students signing up to attend Columbia County's public schools next year. That means more teachers and more classroom space.
It shouldn't be too much for the county's taxpayers to suggest we make sure the only kids coming to class are the ones whose parents have paid for the privilege.
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