Rarely has a school year approached in Columbia County with as much promise and uncertainty clashing.
On the one hand, it's a time of celebration for the public school system's Aug. 10 start. The county is opening its first new high school in 14 years with Grovetown High School, increasing to five the number of public high schools in the county.
At the same time, the county's school system is deservedly receiving much of the credit for recent national recognitions: Evans ranks in the top 10 nationwide of Family Circle magazine's best towns to live, and Martinez is listed in the top 100 "best places" in Money Magazine. No other community within shouting distance can even remotely claim such accolades.
On the other hand, two of the county's schools failed to meet the Adequate Yearly Progress standard of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and one will be forced to allow students to transfer to another school in the system. That school, Harlem High, has already been depleted to an anemic population level by the rezoning that created Grovetown High. It now risks losing even more students because its graduation rate fell below standards.
To make matters worse, the rest of the school system has been thrown into turmoil by a second hard shot of state budget reductions - this time totaling $4.5 million. School Superintendent Charles Nagle has been struggling to cope with cuts that not only will require dipping into the county's reserve fund, but will cost every county educator three days' pay.
Just this week, with principals and teachers already set to come to work, the school board had to adjust the school calendar for the coming year to take those three furlough days into account. And it might not be over; Gov. Sonny Perdue ordered those cuts to be taken before Dec. 31, leaving open the possibility that more cuts will come after.
Easy? Hardly. Even before this latest round of belt-tightening, Columbia County's schools already spent less than the state average to educate each child, and spent less on administration than comparable counties. State law requires more than 70 percent of each dollar be spent in the classroom; the county spends closer to 80 percent directly on students.
Times are tough all over, and school trustees know it - so they aren't contemplating a tax hike to make up for lost state funding.
But in addition to appreciating the belt-tighting, county residents need to be doing a little finger-crossing, too: Hoping that the economy sees further improvement, and that the school system soon can once again focus more on education, and less on paying for it.
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