Batten down the hatches, parents. Columbia County's schools could be in for some rough sailing.
State lawmakers were forecasting gloom Tuesday when they met with local school board members. State budget cuts passed along to Columbia County already have cost the system $13.8 million; substantially more cuts could be coming as the state seeks to close a $700 million shortfall.
Schools haven't been hit as hard as some other state agencies, but lawmakers' ability to continue protecting schools is waning.
"You've got to know everything is on the table this year," says state Sen. Bill Jackson.
Previous cuts to local school systems have been mitigated substantially by federal "stimulus" funds. But that money runs out after next year, and it's uncertain whether it would be replenished.
Jefferson County School Superintendent Carl Bethune analyzed the affect of stimulus funds on the Augusta area. When the funding expires, he says, the community could lose as many as 700 teaching jobs.
Losing that many well-paid educators wouldn't just hurt our schools - it would hurt our economy, too.
If there is a silver lining in this crisis, it is that fiscal constraints might finally force lawmakers to do what should have been done long ago: rather than picking at the edges of individual agencies' budgets, some of those state functions need to be eliminated, others privatized.
While this crisis also will energize such bad ideas as increasing access to gambling, perhaps it will eliminate such notions as creating a parallel public school system through "voucher" programs. Locally, it also could encourage Columbia County's schools to better enforce zoning rules so our taxpayers aren't paying to educate outside students.
What's certain is classrooms will become more crowded and school budgets will get tighter. Parents will have to take more responsibility.
As Jackson says: Everything is on the table.
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