Ask just about anyone in public life to name Columbia County's biggest attraction to new residents, and to the businesses that are drawn to those people, and the answer usually is the same: Good schools.
Without question, Columbia County's schools rank highest in the area by virtually all measures. Real estate agents understand in keen detail the importance of the school system; questions about school zones dominate requests for information from potential home buyers.
The Chamber of Commerce has had a long understanding, too, about the importance of the school system. Ample infrastructure and good roads are key attractions, but businesses are reluctant to locate in an area without adequate schools to provide good educations for employees' children.
As a result, the Columbia County school system has long been an honorary member of the chamber; the school system's value as a county asset has more than made up for any fees a paid membership could generate, and the no-fee, honorary status served as a token of the chamber's appreciation.
That's the way the relationship should stay. There is a move afoot, however - coinciding with school trustee Wayne Bridges' installation as chairman of Columbia County's Chamber board - to have the school board pay dues and formally join the chamber.
Fortunately, state law stands in the way of the school system paying for Chamber dues. "The Georgia attorney general says we can't use tax dollars to pay for this," says Superintendent Tommy Price.
"I don't want to do anything to violate the law," says new School Board Chairman Roxanne Whitaker. "And I don't want the taxpayers to say, "You didn't have the money to do this, but you had the money to join the chamber.'"
It appears, instead, that Board members will join individually. There's nothing stopping them, either, from pooling their own private funds to pay for the elected school board to join the chamber as a single entity.
Chamber membership is essential for businesses in Columbia County, especially as the county continues to grow and prosper and the business community needs a strong, unified voice. With its increased independence from the Augusta Metro Chamber and with go-getter leadership from Executive Director Gordon Renshaw, Columbia County's Chamber is attracting increasing support from the county's business community.
But the Columbia County school system, which already spends significant amounts of funds generated by those businesses and by individual homeowners, should stick to using that money to educate the children of the county.
"Honorary" membership will do just fine.
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