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Our Views: New school year means a fresh start
Local systems put hectic summer behind to deal with challenges of change, growth
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Summer is almost over. Within the next week or so, school children all over Northeast Georgia will return to the old routine of reading, writing and 'rithmetic.

These have been trying times for area school systems. The slowing economy has pinched school budgets. Controversial scores from the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests flooded summer schools with students who needed to pass math to move on to the next grade.

And in the case of the Gainesville city school district, large deficits and the fight over the decision to fire Superintendent Steven Ballowe has dominated the conversation in recent months.

The new school year, though, is a chance for everyone to start anew. It's a chance to put the controversies behind and concentrate on the school's main function: educating the next generation of leaders.

We applaud the decision to name Merrianne Dyer as Gainesville's interim superintendent. A graduate of Gainesville High School herself, Dyer brings some much need stability to the system.

Given the great divide in the board over the dismissal of Ballowe, it was refreshing to see Dyer's selection was unanimous, and that the public seems to be rallying around her.

Her task is daunting. She must help the board find ways to erase a deficit that may go as high as $6 million, while maintaining the academic integrity of a system whose test scores have been on the rise.

Dyer supports elements of former Ballowe's Gainesville Model, and believes in carrying on the system's tradition of excellence. Smith also said she has extensive contacts throughout the community, as well as support from diverse sectors of the community.

She'll need those contacts and support to bring the system back together. As the new school year begins, we suspect she has what it takes to succeed.

But Dyer, and many superintendents across the state, find themselves dealing with other issues as the new year begins. The economic slowdown has caused revenues to drop, even as population -- and, thus, student enrollments -- are on the rise.

The U.S. Census Bureau recently estimated that Gainesville's population has grown 36 percent since the last official census to 34,818 in July 2007. As of 2006, some 173,256 residents called Hall home, up from 139,315 in 2000, the bureau reported.

More families moving in means more children in schools and the rush to keep up. That's why it's important that school and government officials make every effort to stay ahead of this growth curve and not let it overwhelm them, as we've seen in other counties.

As a result of the growth, the systems are scrambling to keep up with the growing need for more classroom space. The districts are building new schools for this year and beyond at a total cost of $74 million. Hall County will open one new elementary school this year and a combination middle school/high school in 2009, when Gainesville's new middle school is set to open as well.

Of course, the need for school planning isn't just for classroom space, but also more qualified teachers who can offer the kind of instruction that can give every child a high-quality education. Changes to the oh-so-important CRCT puts more pressure on teachers not only to ensure students are succeeding in the classroom, but also on the battery of standardized tests which seem to take on more importance each year.

Fortunately, we believe our local systems are poised to move forward. They have strong leadership, dedicated teachers and the necessary resources to success. As the new year begins, they get a clean slate.

They'll need all the support they can get from the community at large to make this school year, and the ones to come successful, safe and meaningful for our kids.