Even as late as 2007, when I began with the Hall County Board of Education, the options were more plentiful as was the amount of revenue. With the rate of growth at that time, I wouldn't have envisioned the need to close a school.
The decision to close Jones Elementary School and consolidate with other schools was a difficult one. I appreciate the spirited debate as a community rallied for its school. There has been plenty written about the numbers: the deficits, smaller tax digest and extraordinary budget cuts that led to this decision. I want to speak to some of the more personal level issues that were raised.
First, let me mention that I appreciate my colleagues on the board and the integrity they display when the options are limited and decisions are difficult. Also, our superintendent, Will Schofield, possesses the intellect and 21st century leadership skills that the job requires and always makes the tough calls in context of the excellence of his character.
The foremost question in my mind was "how would this affect the children?" Some questioned whether or not the other schools would serve the unique needs of the students as well as could be done in the current Jones environment. Certainly the Jones staff was skilled, caring and nurturing as they faced the substantial English language/multicultural challenges.
However, many schools in our area are doing incredibly well in the same situations. We have trained educators who are highly skilled, loving, caring and ready to serve.
The board was also asked to exercise other options on the table rather than closing a school. However, those options were to cut even deeper into the paychecks of educators across this county. We could have fired a substantial number of teachers across the county, or raise taxes on our citizens.
None of those options were acceptable. I could not vote to take away more from the paychecks of our teachers or levy more taxes on our overburdened citizens.
Then there were the arguments about the historical significance of this school. Certainly Jones has a rich heritage. But so have many other schools and districts in this county. My mom lived in New Holland Village. My dad's family was from Gainesville Mill Village. Heritage is certainly important. But in these unprecedented times we couldn't allow sentimentality about the past to derail the proper decisions of the present and future.
One of the more publicized statements was the most personally frustrating. Our board was accused of already having made the decision, simply going through the motions of public forums, ignoring the wishes of the citizens and, therefore, not representing the views of our constituents.
However, we were operating from a belief that we were representing the majority. Those constituents are students, faculty members, moms, dads, grandparents and Hall County residents in general. They depend on us to make wise decisions for each of the 33 schools in our system. They favored the consolidation because their wives, husbands, sons or daughters could ill afford to take any deeper pay cuts than were absolutely necessary. And they certainly would not be supportive of a tax hike.
Local debates such as this one give our citizens an opportunity to engage the process and be heard. Most who entered the debate did so with incredible passion, coupled with a respect for those of us who were struggling with the difficult decision. A few were condescending and less than respectful.
But the ones who passionately, but decently, brought their ideas to the table made an impact. No, we didn't make the decision they wanted, but those voices were the ones that made me check the facts, double-check and then triple-check my decision before I voted.
It is likely that the economic conditions will bring us more challenges ahead, challenges in which residents of Hall County will need to enter the debate. However, these challenges can teach us to come together, express new ideas and use greater collective wisdom.
So let's debate, disagree and take part in public discourse when appropriate. And let's do so in a demeanor and tone where our voices can make a positive impact.
In the arena of ideas, condescension and disrespect rarely get you close enough to the front row for your voice to make a difference. As the options get fewer and the choices harder, let's all work toward moving to the front row.
Brian Sloan is a member of the Hall County Board of Education. He can be reached by e-mail.