Dozens of parents and students showed up at Cobb County's Allatoona High School last week to protest the dismissals of their favorite teachers and coaches.
The educators have been told by school administrators that their contracts will not be renewed for the upcoming school year, a move that was forced by huge cutbacks in the school board's budget. It is a scene taking place not only in Cobb County, where more than 570 positions are being eliminated, but at school systems large and small across the state.
At Allatoona High, even the football coach is being dismissed because of budget pressures. When that happens at a Georgia high school, you know the budget-cutting is getting serious.
The Allatoona crowd was directing their protests at the local school board, with one student telling a reporter: "I believe this is a proper way to fight for our school and to fight for our teachers."
Actually, it isn't.
I understand the frustrations of parents and students who are angry about what's happening at their local school. When these citizens sign petitions and stage protest marches on their local school board, however, they are missing the point.
Local school boards must deal with the loss of huge amounts of funding because of education cutbacks that have been made in recent years in the state budget. These reductions in school spending were the result of a deliberate decision made by the state's political leadership.
Gov. Sonny Perdue and the controlling majority in the General Assembly believe strongly that our wealthiest citizens and corporate CEOs should get tax breaks. Legislators have voted every session to approve dozens of these tax exemptions. Perdue has signed them into law. These tax breaks, as they have accumulated over the past five or six years, have drained hundreds of millions of dollars from the state treasury.
Georgia's constitution requires the governor and the General Assembly to adopt a balanced budget. When you are losing so much money in revenue because of tax breaks, you have to cut spending to meet the legal requirement to balance the budget.
Perdue and the legislators decided that many of those spending reductions would come from public education. In order to balance the budget, Perdue recommended cutting $200 million to $300 million a year from the formula funding that the state would normally send to local school systems. Every year, legislators have voted for budgets that incorporate those spending reductions.
That leaves school boards with the alternative of raising property taxes - and some systems have already reached their legal limit on that - or cutting budgets. Because the largest part of their budgets go for personnel expenses, they have to eliminate teachers' jobs.
Parents and students who are unhappy about teachers being laid off should address their complaints and petitions not to the school board but to Perdue and the members of the Georgia House and Senate.
What Perdue and the General Assembly did was completely legal. They are empowered under the constitution to determine how much each Georgian will pay in taxes. They are also empowered to decide where the tax money that is collected will be spent.
Parents can question whether the Legislature should have approved all those tax breaks requested by special interest lobbyists, or whether lawmakers should have made such deep spending cuts in education. But the governor and the General Assembly had every legal right to make those political decisions.
Perdue won't be running again for governor, but there are candidates to replace him who think we should be spending more on public education. There are also candidates who agree with the reductions that have been made in school funding. Parents will have the choice as to which of those candidates they want to put in the governor's office.
The same thing applies to the people sitting in the Georgia House and Senate. Every parent should take the time to find out who their legislators are and how they have voted on education issues, then make their choice at the polls.
In short, people who are unhappy about teacher dismissals and school closings will have the chance to address that problem in the upcoming elections. That's the beauty of a democracy.
(Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at www.gareport.com.)
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