Hinesville Rotary Club members and guest speaker Dr. Judy Scherer, superintendent of the Liberty County School System, addressed issues that affect community development during Tuesday’s meeting.
When introducing Scherer, Rotarian Jeff Arnold spoke about the role of public education in shaping perception and influencing where families choose to live and where entrepreneurs set up shop.
“Education is probably the primary matter of concern to any military person assigned to this community,” Arnold said. He hypothesized that perception of the school system currently is at a low point, citing an exodus of families to neighboring counties.
“It affects our hospitals, it affects the leadership in our community, in our city and county governments,” he said. “And I read with some distress that we had flunked AYP. … People tried to say, ‘Well, it doesn’t mean anything; it’s not very much.’ But again, to that military captain that’s got young kids, it means everything.
“And I know that you can peel back the onion and determine exactly what is causing us to flunk, and I think that’s an issue of community that we need to address and try to eliminate,” he said.
Scherer explained how finances and demographics affect school performance on Adequate Yearly Progress, the No Child Left Behind standard with annually rising benchmarks.
Despite a “significant financial crisis” in the past three years, the system has managed to prevent layoffs, she said. The school system’s nearly 2,000 employees have sacrificed pay days and have not received raises in the past five years.
The school system serves a majority of minority students, and 67 percent qualify for free and reduced-price lunches — an indication of the county poverty level, Scherer said. Forty-five percent of students also are military-related and transient, further complicating the issue.
She responded to Arnold’s comments about the importance of AYP and explained that the system’s elementary and middle schools consistently meet the standards and that even though the high schools did not meet it this year, their performance continues to improve.
“Graduation rate in this county has gone from 63 percent the year I came here to 77 percent in the last three years — that is a substantial increase,” Scherer said. “I’ll be the first to tell you we’re not there yet; we should never be satisfied until that graduation rate is 100 percent and every student is passing the standard tests and the norms that it takes to make AYP.”
But the school system does much more than educating its students, Scherer added.
“If it were all about academics and we didn’t have to worry about all the other things, we might make it,” she said.
The district serves two meals a day to most students, and last year schools served 775,000 breakfasts and 1,500,000 lunches to ensure their students were fed.
Fourteen nurses provide daily medical care to the district’s students for accidents, sudden illnesses and chronic illnesses such as asthma and diabetes, she said. They also conduct vision, hearing and scoliosis screenings.
“For many of our kids, that’s the only medical care they get,” Scherer said.
Six social workers conduct home visits, appear in court with students, offer economic and social referrals to outside agencies and more. They also run the used-uniform drive, where items are collected, cleaned and redistributed to low-income families.
Scherer also spoke about how the financial crunch created about $20 million in funding reductions for the system, and she explained that ESPLOST funds are restricted for capital outlay projects, such as Bradwell Institute and Olvey Field renovations.
Despite the cuts, the district anticipates keeping millage rates stable this year, Scherer said.
Following up on the area’s demographic challenges, Courier publisher Mark Griffin likened the performance between Liberty and neighboring school systems to a competition to draw residents and businesses.
“My question is: How do you win it?” Griffin said.
“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 people (who) don’t live here, but it’s also because of housing issues, tax issues, goods and service issues,” Scherer answered. “When I came here, (former Garrison Commander) Col. (Todd) Buchs and I had a long talk about what happens with the military … and he said, ‘I’ll tell you now, the reputation is the enlisted guys live in Liberty County and the officers live in Bryan County.’”
Scherer also cautioned people about drawing comparisons between Liberty County’s high schools and Bryan County’s high schools. She likened it to “comparing apples to oranges if you look at the makeup of those high schools.”
“When you compare the whole school system, I think we can compete,” she said. “I think what the school system can do is continue to do the very best that we can with the school system we have, educate people and put our numbers out there.”