The bell rings on the first day of school this week in Jefferson, next week in Gainesville and Hall County. And this school year may be the most challenging in recent memory.
First are the changes. Hall County is shuffling three sets of students to new buildings — Flowery Branch High to a new building, Davis Middle to the old Branch, South Hall Middle to the old Davis Middle — which involves teachers, staff and administrators relocating the whole shebang down the road to save $1.5 million in new-school startup costs. Gainesville has its own new building, shiny new Gainesville Middle School, its $33 million cost funded by a special sales tax.
New schools bring adjustments, from lockers that stick to traffic patterns that could snarl area roads. And both systems had to deal with a loss of several buses over the summer, Gainesville's to fire and Hall County's to vandalism.
But nothing casts a pall on the start of school more than the looming budget cuts that will result in furlough days for teachers in Gainesville, Hall and most other districts in Georgia.
Earlier this month, Gov. Sonny Perdue called on districts to give teachers three days of unpaid leave in the coming school year as part of a 3 percent cut in the state's education budget. This comes on top of earlier cuts sparked by the state's $900 million budget deficit and sagging tax revenues.
It's double jeopardy for districts that already are bringing in less money from their own local tax collections, leaving budget deficits or depleting any surplus funds they had saved up. As a result, they have cut what they can, from staff to brick-and-mortar needs. In many cases, there is little left to cut that won't affect classroom instruction. This in a state that ranks low in most nationwide educational standards, from test scores to graduation rates.
But short of printing money at the state capitol — and the federal government frowns on that — the state has few alternatives. Dwindling tax money means cutbacks in services, once all the waste is found and cut (and there's always some that manages to avoid the ax.)
And while schools are a high priority for any state government, so are public safety, prisons, roads, parks, all the things that keep a civil society civilized.
Yet even as they face smaller paychecks and more challenges to their already difficult jobs, teachers are preparing to start class with the same enthusiasm and dedication as before. Over the weekend, many have been out shopping for class supplies, paying for them out of their own pocket now that the state can't give them a hand.
This week, they will show up to get their classrooms ready for the first day, putting in the long hours they always do. In many cases, their time spent on planning days will be unpaid as part of the furlough savings. But they still are willing to put their students first, even if the state hasn't been able to.
Teachers endured pay cuts earlier this year, 2.4 percent for Hall schools, $75 per month for Gainesville's. And while they're not happy about it — and who among us would be? — many say they understand it's a necessary move to save their jobs.
It's admirable they are willing to do what it takes, and troubling that our economy has sunk to the point where schools, teachers and students can't get everything they need in a time when a good education is more important than ever.
Yet even if we begrudgingly admit that short-term pain is inevitable, we don't have to make it last. While asking teachers to sacrifice in the short term, Georgia should also offer a long-term commitment that full funding of education, including teacher pay and benefits, will be a top priority when the state budget inches back into the black.
The $100 plus million that the state will save on furlough days this year can't be banked for later on, since it's needed to balance the books now. But the state can ensure that money will be channeled back into the school systems as soon as revenues return to form. Such promises often disappear into the mist when better times return and money gets redirected to other needs.
That's why the state needs to put it in writing. State lawmakers should pass legislation in the next session triggering a raise in teacher pay and school funding tied to a similar rise in tax revenues. There can't be a time deadline involved, since no one knows when the economy might rebound. But when that day comes and the state begins to bring in more money, the first priority needs to be education, starting with giving teachers back what they have lost.
Such a move could help restore sagging teacher morale by letting them know if they can hang in there during the tough times, they'll be rewarded for their diligence later on.
As for other state employees and departments who likely will want the same promise, they'll have to get their funding restored by priority. After schools, public safety, health and other pressing needs should have their budgets restored, followed by lesser priorities like parks, golf courses, resorts and amenities when the state's coffers are more flush with cash.
Our state's teachers have been hit twice now in the past year, yet they continue to put in extra hours on the job. It proves what we already knew: No one goes into teaching for the money or for personal gain, but to better the lives of young people. That kind of dedication is admirable, and we hope sets an example for their students, showing them what really is important in life.
Georgia's education professionals are doing their best, under difficult circumstances and with diminished rewards, to prepare our kids for the future. Let's see what we can do down the road to make sure their future is taken care of as well.