As you know, Gov. Deal announced an additional $314 million for education in his State of the State address last week; but there is no telling how much Cobb will receive to help with our $79 million shortfall. While I’ve been inundated with excited texts, emails and social media pings, I do want to urge optimistic caution. This is just his proposal for the budget. It still has to go through the legislative process.
Remember too that this is an election year and he’s being challenged by State Superintendent of Education John Barge and Dalton Mayor David Pennington in the GOP Primary. Therefore, everyone knew Deal would be giving some short-term relief for schools. There are no systemic changes being proposed.
A number of months ago, Tricia Knor, a leading education finance researcher, and I developed a multi-step plan for concrete changes to help the school funding crisis. It’s been looked at by many legislators, school board members, the Cobb Chamber of Commerce, the Georgia Tea Party and multiple education groups. Much of it now needs to be changed because of recent events, but many points are still highly relevant.
We suggested legislative changes to the law regulating county development authorities such as the Development Authority of Cobb County, which granted tax abatements to developer John Williams’ “Riverwalk” project. Fortunately, that application has been withdrawn. However, nothing has changed to prevent this from happening again. The DACC board is not elected and has no specific written policies for granting tax breaks to developers. Executive Director Nelson Geter told the MDJ the DACC typically follows the lead of the county Board of Commissioners, but it has the power to act independently, lowering its standards and bucking those recommendations.
Many have stated that Williams is a strong community member who has done a lot for Cobb. I don’t doubt that at all. But supporting one’s community shouldn’t be rewarded with school tax dollars. This is not personal. It’s the precedent we fear, and rightly so. Multiple businesses are now clamoring for similar deals. Some critics say that this uncertainty will scare away future developers. On the contrary, developing clear rules to guide this board will ensure certainty, and reliability of results.
I supported the Braves deal which also abated taxes for schools. However, specifically for that reason, I feel our county is now in a stronger position and our leaders should keep this in mind.
Recently state Rep. Rich Golick (R-Smyrna) proposed legislation to reform these authorities and grant voting power instead to the commission and school board, where it should reside. It mirrors one of the suggestions in our plan and also what many citizens have been requesting.
I was incredibly impressed when the school board, under the leadership of former Chairman Randy Scamihorn, brought suit challenging the DACC. As for Kathleen Angelucci, the newest chair, I don’t see her as a wilting violet backing down from this issue either.
Remember, the funding crisis is not just a state issue. It needs to be done as a partnership between the legislators and the school board, with both entities enacting solutions, such as: trimming waste at the central administration; a possible increase of the local millage rate; requiring the non-profit arm of the school district to use its 501c3 status to help raise needed funds; making changes to the SPLOST law; and the monumental, and long-term, task of making changes to the QBE law.
To all who made phone calls to legislators and the governor: thank you for listening and acting. You made an impact. Don’t stop though, lest this be a onetime fix. You must vote in the primary elections May 20. This is when most candidates are elected and the only way your voice will be heard.
JoEllen Smith of east Cobb, a small business owner, is on the steering committees of multiple local and state education advocacy groups. She is also on the county task force of a fiscally conservative political advocacy group. She can be found on Facebook.