It’s that time of year again. No, I’m not talking about the holidays, rather time for what has become the annual schools’ budget forecast of dour economic tidings.
Actually, the fiscal fiasco season comes early this year with the school system ready to put their budget planning and proposals up front and in the community dialogue to solicit the gift of feedback. So now it’s time for us to bring our ideas to the table and see if we can fix this turkey.
I purposely started my story in Friday’s paper on the budget proposals with chairman John Darden’s quote that “It’s time to change, and everyone’s not going to get what they want,” because I felt it perfectly summed up what’s on the plate right now. What school staff and the Advisory Task Force have come up with is a radical redesign of the school system that essentially was inherited from the four separate systems that operated in Troup County until they consolidated in the mid-80s to 90s.
Buildings that have remained relatively unchanged and were positioned to serve children in different areas when the county was less populous are, by current standards, not up to snuff. They are inconveniently located and have little growth potential. Despite major reworking of school bus routes, there still exists inefficiencies caused by school zoning and the location of many of the oldest schools.
Take Whitesville Road, Berta Weathersbee, Unity, Hollis Hand and Franklin Forest elementary and Ethel Kight Magnet schools. All are located within a couple of miles of each other.
The current proposal would break the county into 10 zones for elementary schools, each more centrally located around a school that would serve 750 students. Although that’s larger than what has locally been done before, it still falls within practical limits.
The problem, though, is getting from here to there. There is no quick and simple way to get to that point. It will take years of planning, changes and building, and transition is never easy. The idea of closing some schools to build new ones also seems counter-intuitive, but it makes sense in the long run.
It can be tempting to go with what schools Superintendent Cole Pugh describes as the plan to just get through the next year, but a long-range plan to make these changes is not just a budget fix, but if done properly, could help the school system become more efficient overall.
It’s like continuing to drive an old car and replacing the pieces as they break, when going for the bigger up-front investment of a new car that runs more efficiently and doesn’t require constant maintenance actually saves in the long run. Sometimes you can’t afford that big investment and just paying for things as they break is the only way to get by, but Troup County has that seeming Deus Ex Machina of the special-purpose, local-option sales tax set aside for capital investment and facilities.
That still doesn’t fix everything. State funding still is expected to decrease year after year, and long-range plans don’t address the here and now. So that’s where the big cuts come in: closing another school, taking out art and music in elementary schools along with extension teachers, a shorter school calendar, and – one thing I forgot to mention in Friday’s article – more furlough days for school system employees. Oh, and a tax increase, which everybody loves.
Those are all on the table right now as viable options to balance the budget and get the school system through just another year. However, they’re not options anyone wants.
That’s where the community input comes in.
“Let’s start to get feedback on here and see what people come up with before we make a decision,” Pugh said Thursday, adding that there are probably more options that may come to light before it’s time to make the final budget decisions next year.
So, now the plan is out in the open and the options are laid bare. What’s missing? What’s Plan C? That’s what the school system is asking residents to help find – those areas that can help get the school system through the immediate budget crunch without sacrificing something as important as art and music, which barely escaped a full cut this year.
Now is the time for constructive ideas.
The school system’s budget affects everyone. It seems appropriate that everyone should have a say in how it’s addressed.