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Crowd packs forum, vents over education
Only one area lawmaker braves session
Ed education forum 0110
The commission meeting room of the courthouse annex was packed for theforum. - photo by Photo by Jen Alexander McCall
A public forum to discuss the impact of possible budget cuts on local education drew a standing-room-only crowd Thursday afternoon  at the courthouse annex in Hinesville. Educators, parents and local residents posed questions to Rep. Al Williams, the only  elected official in attendance after scheduled participants Sen. Buddy Carter and Rep. Ron Stephens reportedly backed out shortly before the forum began.
Williams thanked  the 100-plus people in the audience for their attention to the issues and asked them to continue to show interest once the economy improves. “I appreciate your interest and I know that you are interested [in the budget decisions], but we need you at all the town hall meetings,” Williams said.
“I’m going to see that every member of the delegation gets copies of copious notes from this meeting. This is chain-rattling time,” he said. “Everyone is fighting for a piece of the pie — a pie that doesn’t exist. Teachers have to fight to hold onto their piece.”
Chief among complaints related to state budget cuts has been that education should not be among the sectors losing out on funding. However, Williams sought to dispel the idea that education in Georgia is not a priority among lawmakers by saying that education has been receiving more than half the state’s budget.
“At the beginning of our financial problems, education was getting 53 percent of a $20 billion budget; now you’re looking at about $15 billion … this was the budget in 2005,” Williams said.  He added that currently the state allocates 57 percent of its budget to schools.

Furloughs remain a top concern
Some of the early questions focused on concerns about whether cuts to school budgets should result in more unpaid furlough days. “Every department is being furloughed,” Williams answered. “We passed the fat a long time ago and have reached the bone. I don’t know where we will be at the end of this.”
One veteran teacher asked if the state could set a flat rate for furlough days rather than basing the rate on an individual teacher’s pay. She argued that teachers with tenure take a bigger hit than first-year educators, especially those who have lost their board certification supplement.
Williams responded that he would pass the suggestion along to legislators, along with every other suggestion and concern made. He also pointed out that school employees such has lunchroom workers and bus drivers suffer equally with teachers. “I like your concept,” he said. “But I wouldn’t even try to answer that, though I guarantee there are people in this room who disagree.”

Abiding by the constitution?
One educator made note of points in the Georgia Constitution that call for the legislature to make provisions only for education and safety. “When you told us only 53 percent of the budget goes to education, how can legislators really deal with that when all they’re responsible for, legally, is education and safety?” she asked. “How can you limit so little to the education and the responsibility from the constitution that’s stated there?”
Williams responded by reiterating that more than half the state budget is earmarked for education but, he added, “We’ve got 9.5 million citizens that have a whole lot of needs. State government has a multiplicity of responsibilities, education being one of them but definitely not the only one.
“We definitely cannot turn our backs on the rest of state for education,” he said. “In the past few years we’ve gone overboard for education and rightfully so.  There are a lot of people who think 53 percent was too high. We’re at 57 percent now and I can tell you there are people who think that’s too high.”

Examining corporate tax breaks

Educators and parents were equally miffed about continued state tax breaks to corporations. Dr. Thomas  Lockamy Jr., Chatham County superintendent, said he thinks the budget is being balanced on the backs of students, and while teachers and administrators are accepting cuts in pay through furloughs — Lockamy said he accepted extra cuts and turned down his annuity — local corporations who receive tax breaks from the state are enjoying $500,000 bonuses.
“What are you willing to do to bring forth to the people’s attention how transparent we are with all those corporations?” he asked “I know they give jobs , but at the same time we have teachers who need jobs as well.”
Transparency could be a challenge because, according to Williams, the state’s tax auditor has said he doesn’t have the authority to audit tax breaks and make sure the amount of promised returns are coming. Williams said he is prepared to fight against future tax concessions for corporations in Georgia. “We have gone overboard in tax breaks in this state and I’m committed to vote against every tax reduction in this session,” he said.
“When you have companies that have great bottom lines and even supplement them with additional tax cuts, and then ask teachers and bus drivers and lunchroom workers and other people to take days off because we can’t afford it, something’s upside down.”

Putting taxes to work
Williams fielded a question about implementing sin taxes — taxes on items such as cigarettes and alcohol — saying he is open to looking for money everywhere. A piece of legislation introduced last year by Rep. Stephens recommended placing a $1 tax on every pack of cigarettes to raise money for the state, but it failed to move ahead.
“It died a streaming, falling death because some people signed a pledge to never raise taxes,” he said. “That would have raised $400-$450 million for the state.”

School board’s fiscal moves questioned
Despite the intent of the forum, the Liberty County school board also received criticism. One audience member questioned the wisdom of the board’s purchase of Brewton-Parker College and the construction of a new administration building.
One parent in the audience wanted to know how his tax dollars are being used to specifically educate students. “I’m paying SPLOST tax, I’m paying property tax, I’m paying education tax,” he said.
“I’m watching the board of education — I see them spending money left and right for a new, beautiful board of education building. I see them spending $2 million on a building just to put on plays and presentations. Please explain to me how you can you ask me not to feel, as a parent, angry when I’m paying money and now you come back and tell me, we’ve got to cut back on the education of the children?” he asked
Williams responded, “It is very politically popular to knock buildings and knock other things ... but when you get ready to move to another level, and you expect good industry to come, if they want to come and see your administration under pup tents, they ain’t got no interest in doing business with you at all. The first question industry wants to know is how is education?”
At the close of the forum, Board of Education Chairwoman Lily Baker invited attendees to a town hall meeting Jan. 21 so the school board can answer questions related to school district policy and spending. “I’m extremely grateful for all you do. We as board notice all you do, and I want to address your concerns about the $2 million building,” Baker said.
Williams reflected on the forum a day later by again expressing his appreciation for the willingness of people to participate in the event. “I think they had very valid concerns,” he said.
Williams said his primary concerns with budget cuts and their effect on schools are safety and instructional integrity. “When you have to cut back with furloughs, you cut into instruction,” he said.
Williams also added that he doesn’t want to compromise teachers’ pay. He does, however, want to remain open to any ideas that could help generate revenue for the state and wants to keep Liberty County residents up to speed on the state legislature’s progress.
“I think everything should be on the table,” he said. “I hope that as the budget process starts, we can see what the budget is going to mean to them.”
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