Columbia County school officials are taking the right approach in deciding whether to join a group of school systems preparing to sue Georgia for more money: They're testing the waters before taking what could be a drowning plunge.
The Consortium for Adequate School Funding, made up of 53 mostly rural school systems from around the state, wants Columbia County to be No. 54, en route to persuading more large school systems to sign on.
The consortium contends Georgia has never lived up to its legal obligations to adequately fund the state's public school system.
That has been tough enough, especially for smaller school systems. But the state's lean budget, and the cuts that followed, have threatened to drown some of those smaller systems in red ink.
Columbia County isn't in such dire circumstances, even though state cuts have taken a nearly $9 million bite out of the county's budget in the past three years. Only a hefty budget reserve has held the county above water.
Signing on as a member of the consortium would be the first step in getting the group primed for a lawsuit, though that suit apparently is coming with or without Columbia County's participation.
A central worry of some trustees is that if Columbia County signs up, the opening dues of $42,000 could seem like pocket change if the legal costs began to rise. Every county in the consortium would have to pay a share of the legal fees that could balloon when the state fights back with virtually unlimited resources. As one of the larger counties in the group, Columbia County taxpayers could get hit with a bigger share of the bill.
For that reason, School Board attorney William Fleming is studying the paperwork to see if Columbia County could later climb out of the legal waters, or if we'd be forced to sink or swim along with the rest of the consortium.
There is no doubt that the state has failed to live up to its legally mandated obligations in funding the state's schools. Suits in other states have forced tremendous changes for the same reasons. But certainty doesn't always result in a victory in court, especially when one side can potentially change the rules by an act of the Legislature.
It's also pretty certain the lawsuit is coming. So until Columbia County officials can be equally certain local taxpayers won't be jumping into a bottomless pool, they're right to keep testing the waters.
Old worry, new again
School trustee Lee Muns, thus far the board member most skeptical about joining the consortium, believes some of the smaller systems could be hurting themselves by failing to implement a sales tax or seek local tax increases, rather than relying on state funding.
None of that absolves the state from living up to its legal obligations. But it's interesting that the same argument was made 79 years ago -- right here in this newspaper.
In an editorial headlined "Georgia's Educational Needs," The Columbia News in 1925 said much of the state's sorry education status rested on counties, including Columbia County, that don't do enough to fix their own problems.
"As a rule, the poorer counties are doing the least for themselves and have the lowest tax rate. Before it would be fair for the state to help these poorer counties, they must help themselves according to their ability."
The message still holds true -- even though it doesn't get the state off the hook for failing to fund its own mandates.
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