Georgia Governor to Focus on What Voters Wouldn't: Failing Schools

by | January 12, 2017

By Chuck Williams

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal's State of the State address Wednesday morning focused on two statewide issues -- education and the military -- that have a tremendous impact on Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley.

The governor, speaking to a joint session of the General Assembly in the House chambers, told the legislators that his proposed state budget would address mental health issues facing active duty personnel and veterans, as well as the state's failing schools.

Deal, in his seventh year as the state's top executive, said the state revenue picture was much brighter than it was six years ago when he took office. He projected a 3.6 percent growth in state revenue next year over the current budget of more than $23 billion. The reserve fund has grown from $116 million -- enough to operate the state government for about two days -- to more than $2 billion, Deal said.

"Why did this happen? Because we had faith and we accentuated the positive," he said. "So, this year, the budget and the legislation I bring to you will continue to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative."

Deal took a great deal of time to address the military issues facing the state.

"I am asking that this legislature remove barriers to mental health services for our veterans," he said. "There are approximately 61,288 active military personnel, 27,233 reservists and 752,000 veterans currently in Georgia. They have given of themselves to protect us. It is only fitting that we should protect them in kind."

Deal proposed funding to better train existing state employees who provide state and federal-funded services to veterans; allocated for a Women Veterans Coordinator position who will work with female veterans that have suffered military sexual trauma; and authorized $3 million in bonds for a rehabilitation facility that will provide behavioral health services to veterans who have traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Those were initiatives that Sen. Ed Harbison, D-Columbus, embraced.

"I was encouraged that the governor focused on some military aspects," said Harbison, a Marine and Vietnam veteran. "The piece about making sure that we set up a facility dealing with PTSD and other related medical issues that our people will be facing was great for me."

The governor proposed a 2 percent salary increase for all authorized state teacher positions in the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1. That is in addition to the 3 percent merit pay increase included in the current fiscal year's budget.

"As our educators accentuate the positives in our children and eliminate the negatives, we should latch onto the affirmative and reward them for that invaluable service," Deal said. "As we do so, we should also seek to eliminate whatever systemic negatives are preventing students and teachers alike from realizing their full potential."

Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus said he was pleased with the way the governor handled the raises.

"I was encouraged that Gov. Deal is building in a 2 percent raise for teachers into the budget so that local school boars can not raid those funds for other purposes as occurred last year," McKoon said.

To that end, he addressed the state's failing schools, pointing out that two years ago there were 127 chronically failing schools with roughly 68,000 enrolled students. Last year, there were 153 schools that had a failing score for three consecutive years, Deal noted. Those 153 chronically schools served almost 89,000 students last school year -- more than 20,000 more students than he spoke of last fall.

Deal's plan for state takeover of those schools failed in a statewide ballot measure in November.

"It should be abundantly clear to everyone, including those in the education community who so staunchly support the status quo, that this is unacceptable," Deal said. "If this pattern of escalation in the number of failing schools does not change, its devastating effects on our state will grow with each passing school year."

For the second straight year, the Muscogee County School District has reduced its number of schools considered chronically failing.

MCSD had 10 of the 141 schools on the state's original list of chronically failing schools released in February 2015 and eight of the state's 127 chronically failing schools last year. This year, MCSD again reduced its number chronically failing schools, to seven, while the state's number increased to 153.

Rep Richard Smith, R-Columbus, said Deal was on the mark when it came to his education proposals.

"It really shocked me that so many education groups came out opposed to his plan last year to work with these schools," Smith said. "If we have a school that is failing, we have to do something. Those kids don't stand a chance."

Smith admits a legislative fix after the referendum failed will be a difficult proposition.

"It may be, but you go talk to those 89,000 students and their parents who are in those failing schools," Smith said. "You tell them I can't support that."

The state has increased K-12 spending by 2.017 billion over the last four years, including the proposed budget. About 50 percent of all new growth in state revenue has gone to K-12 public education, Deal said.

Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, listening to his 43rd State of the State address from his seventh governor dating back to Jimmy Carter, was pleased with the focus on education.

"I am glad the governor continues his emphasis on education, especially in the area of funding because of all the austerity cuts over the years due to the recession," Smyre said. "Education is the escalator to upward mobility and it's one of the keys to our workforce development. Paying attention to education and funding education is critical."

The governor submits his Fiscal Year 18 budget to the General Assembly, which approves state funding. The governor has the authority to veto any part of it.

(c)2017 the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer (Columbus, Ga.)