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Enrollment drops despite Census numbers

Taxes, cost of living may prompt families to move

POSTED: December 3, 2012 4:00 p.m.

Hinesville has been called a “boom town,” and it’s growth has landed it positions on lists like “The Top 10 Cities People are Moving to in 2012” by The Fiscal Times and the U.S. Census Bureau’s list of fastest-growing communities.
The third-party titles may serve the area well, but they leave many to wonder why Liberty County School System enrollment is on the decline.
The drop is a problem for the school board, as enrollment is factored into federal and state funding allocations. Fewer students equals less money.
Mary Alexander, the district assistant superintendent for student services, tracks the data and did an analysis earlier this year to see where individual students have gone.
“The movement is global; they’re going out of country, they’re going to different states,” Alexander said.   “There is not a pattern that we’re having a group leave us and go to a designated certain area; they’re going all over, … I can’t say they’re leaving us and going to Long County or that they’re leaving us and going to Richmond Hill.”
Years back, the district saw a definitive dip and a trend of families moving back on post when Fort Stewart opened Kessler Elementary. According to Fort Stewart spokesman Kevin Larson, Kessler opened in 2005.
On Thursday, LCSS enrollment was 10,080. Alexander said live-time data may not be available at surrounding districts, as there are only two required tracking periods in October and March, when FTE-formula numbers are collected.
Liberty keeps a closer eye on the data due to the transient nature of its population, Alexander added. She recently reported that LCSS enrollment was down by 289 students from last year.
Around the same time, Long County Superintendent Dr. Robert Waters said his schools have seen an influx of about 250, and many are coming from budding subdivisions between the Liberty line and Ludowici.
According to numbers provided by LCSS Assistant Superintendent for Administrative Services Jason Rogers, Liberty enrollment has fluctuated in recent years.
Between 2002 and 2006, LCSS enrollment hovered between 11,067 at the lowest and 11,588 at its peak in 2003-04.
The number dipped to 10,853 in 2007-08 before edging up slightly to 11,051 the following year. It climbed gradually from 2009 through the 2011-12 year but since has fallen.
Neighboring Bryan and Long counties indicate their numbers are climbing, though data from the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement is based on October FTE enrollment counts, while Liberty tracks enrollment every 20 days.  

A tri-county look
There’s an oft-touted notion that Liberty County schools are inferior to neighboring Bryan County, an issue that was discussed during the March countywide planning retreat and in an October 2011 Rotary meeting featuring LCSS Superintendent Dr. Judy Scherer.
In the meetings, Scherer and others said they’ve heard others blame academic test scores, Bradwell Institute’s football team record and performance under the Adequate Yearly Progress benchmarks.
And while those factors may capture the attention of incoming families, Scherer reiterated that it takes an entire community to support an education system.  
“The school system is only one of a number of factors that this county has to address. It’s not just because of the school system (that) people don’t live here, but it’s also because of housing issues, tax issues, goods and service issues,” Scherer said at the Rotary meeting.

Academic performance
In Bryan County, eight of nine schools met AYP standards in the 2010-11 year, compared to 11 of 13 Liberty schools making the cut.
According to reports on the Georgia Department of Education website, gadoe.org, the districts share a common issue: high-school performance. Neither of Liberty’s high schools met AYP, and neither did Bryan County High School.
Consequently, both systems are labeled as not meeting AYP, though Bryan has a higher percentage of schools meeting at 88.9 percent, compared to 84.6 percent in Liberty.  
Despite each individual school being listed as making AYP, Long also did not make the cut due to underperformance of its economically disadvantaged students, limited-English proficient students, students with disabilities and black students.
Bryan met AYP, however, in 2008-09 and 2009-10. Long did not meet AYP in 2005-06 or 2006-07, but made it in 2007-08 and the following year.
Reports available since 2005 on the DoE site indicate that Liberty has not met AYP in the time documented.
But with the rollout of the new Georgia College and Career Ready Performance Index, or GCCRPI, Liberty has an edge: two of its schools made positive lists that did not include schools from Bryan, Long, Chatham, Tattnall or McIntosh counties.
Taylors Creek Elementary School was among 78 on the highest-performing list, and Jordye Bacon Elementary School was among 156 schools that made the cut for high progress, according to information released from the DoE.
Of the three counties, Liberty also has the highest enrollment numbers — which means it is likely to have more score variety “because demographics and other non-school factors can have a significant effect on scores,” according to a September state release on SAT scores.

What newcomers want
While the LCSS has not identified a relocation trend, it is possible that newcomers are being drawn away from Liberty County and into Long.
In a recent interview, Hinesville real-estate expert Jimmy Shanken attributed growth in Long County to cost of living and property tax rates — which ultimately affects where new residents enroll their children.
Shanken said the price discrepancy for identical houses in Liberty and Long counties can lead to a potential $60 per month difference in cost of living.
Long County also places fewer regulations on new construction, he said, which invites developers.
And since many buyers now err on the conservative side, that savings can make all the difference he said.  
In 2011, Hinesville residents had a combined property-tax rate of 41.8 mills, and residents elsewhere in Liberty County faced 32.98 mills.
In 2011, Ludowici residents saw a rate of 39.46 mills, and residents in the rest of Long had a 29.46-mill rate.
According to the Georgia Department of Revenue Local Services Division, Liberty has two more taxing entities — the industrial and hospital authorities — that Long does not have.
Comparing the tax rates is complicated because mills are a portion of a home’s value, which means one mill may generate different amounts in different areas.
However, Liberty’s median value of owner-occupied housing units is $120,300, according to U.S. Census QuickFacts data available for 2006-2010. Hinesville’s median is $118,000.
Long County’s median value from the same data is $75,700. Ludowici was not listed in the data.
Long County Commission Chairman Bobby Walker confirmed that the county’s tax rates are lower and that historically, the county has been lax in its building codes.
While Long County has maintained the same millage rate for three years, Walker said it recently aligned its codes with Georgia’s Construction Codes.
“I think your builders over there will tell you that it’s not like it used to be over here,” he said, adding that a code enforcer now conducts checks almost every day.  
Still, he said Long County has seen a boom in growth, with several subdivisions cropping up.
As the Courier previously reported, Liberty County and the city of Hinesville recently adopted development codes that are said to be less rigorous with the guidance of Fort Stewart Growth Management Partnership former director Jeff Ricketson and the Liberty Consolidated Planning Commission.


 

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