From the moment Columbia County School Superintendent Charles Nagle announced a sweeping plan to raze and rebuild eight county schools, it seemed the biggest obstacle wouldn't be local.
It would be national.
We know the economy has been rough. And Columbia County residents, most of us pretty conservative, have gritted our teeth at the irrational response from the party in power in Washington, D.C.
But Columbia County's economy hasn't nosedived. Our jobless rate is nearly half the national level. It's obvious that some negative reactions to the school plan are just misdirected anger at Washington.
Surely we aren't going to let Washington's woes paralyze Columbia County's future. Does it really make sense for citizens who are furious at President Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to punish local officials just because they're within reach?
That's as irrational as the guy who gets chewed out by his boss, comes home and kicks his dog.
Besides, these local realities drive this proposal:
- Most schools slated for demolition are more than 50 years old. The system can either replace and improve them for $95 million, mostly through the 1-percent education sales tax, or it can spend nearly $55 million to renovate schools that still would be below modern standards.
As Nagle says, the latter option is akin to putting a new engine and transmission in a worn-out pickup. At some point it just makes more sense to buy a new car.
- The school system's population is growing enough to fill a new elementary school every year. School officials could simply plod ahead and add a school to the inventory every year or so; this new plan would instead upgrade the existing stock, and even close one school and absorb its population into larger, more efficient new schools.
From any objective view, this is a good plan that just happens to be swimming against an unpleasant tide of bad national news.
It's also happened before. Columbia County School Superintendent John Pierce Blanchard's ambitious school-building program in 1954 also had to overcome local anger at national issues.
In March of that year, Blanchard announced his plan to build larger new schools to consolidate the one-room schoolhouses still scattered throughout the county. The plan quickly picked up community support.
But the wheels nearly fell off on May 17 when the landmark ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education signaled the beginning of the end for segregated school systems.
That Supreme Court decision quickly spread fear among Southerners that the federal government would dictate how they ran local schools. Blanchard's plan suddenly was imperiled because of the mistaken view that it would be used to end segregation.
In the nick of time, the plan was rescued - with a petition from the black community.
Presented to Blanchard just before the bond referendum, the letter expressed 1,085 black residents' support for segregated schools. Blanchard apparently solicited the letter from black citizens who, at the time, had no right to vote and were forced to rely on that referendum for the funding to replace their substandard schools.
If the white majority believed the program would force them into taxing themselves to pay for integration, it would have gone down in flames. The letter defused those fears, and the referendum passed with a staggering 95 percent of the vote.
More than 50 years later, who will stand up for a similarly modern, forward-thinking, local school construction plan endangered not by local realities, but by fears of national trouble?
Those 1,085 courageous black citizens of 1954 knew passage of the plan would provide their children with better schools. The parents of children who attend, or who will attend, Columbia County's schools should look to that example from 56 years ago - and respond likewise.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail email@example.com. Follow at twitter.com/barrypaschal.)
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