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Column: Camden Co. School Board elections matter and so do students

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of AllOnGeorgia. 

The most important local election no one is talking about is for the local school board.

The school year started with a bumpy ride with the bus transportation issues causing great concern throughout the district when children were being dropped in wrong locations; students being placed on the wrong bus riding for hours, wrong route assignments; overcrowding and overheating; stories of students urinating on themselves; and parents frantically calling 911 to find their child.

Parents have consistently given their concerns about the change in school times, which many believe lead to transportation issues at the start of the school year. The district changed their transportation routing system, which required updated parental information for routes to be accurate. The communication on something so important could have been more effective.

The student health survey revealed that over 3800 students in grades 6-12 answered most of the suicidal ideation type questions higher than the state average. Currently, the district is working with local non-profits to re-solidify the Sources of Strength program in the middle and high schools. The program was to start in February, but it is not known if that has even begun – and it is April. When will parents learn of this news?

The Parkland, FL school shooting reminded us how vulnerable our own backyard could be concerning the multiple access points of our high school. Many students and parents have brought up valid points about what other security measures could be done locally to prevent a similar episode in Camden. The answer may very well reside from an out of the box approach – no solutions should be off the table concerning student safety. Comments about schools being as safe as they are going to be is not a campaign platform any school board candidates should accept.

The Tribune and Georgian released a report (kudos) of students being bullied and threatened by other students. The threats were so severe, the District Attorney got involve and unfortunately brought the charges down to a misdemeanor and the students were released back into the student population. This needs serious public discussion and leadership from elected school board members, not the central office personnel.

With dollars expected to be depleted from non-renewal of federal impact aid, the local school board is also going to ask voters to renew the ESPLOST sales tax for five years. The new tax renewal is expected to generate $39,000,000 in revenue. The sales tax revenue from the proposed renewal could be used to renovate or construct education buildings, purchase furniture, equipment, school buses, technology which includes software, hardware, and related infrastructure, land acquisition, textbooks, and security systems.

It is interesting the school board is asking for our vote for a potential renewal of a $39,000,000 tax when parents are asking for more measures for student safety and other resources to target programs. The priorities have shifted, and parents want a place that is concerned with well-being.  ESPLOST renewal is a good start to blunt the impact of lost federal funding, but we need dynamic governance beyond the training provided by the Georgia School Board’s Association.

Perhaps it is time to review priorities and look where we can fund more school resource officers. Unfortunately, ESPLOST sales tax renewals are not allowed to hire personnel, but I would urge school officials to prioritize other funds to make school safety issues a first-tier priority. Perhaps we could fund SROs like we do for the representative of the Camden Partnership whose salary is paid by the three cities and the county. That person’s job is to advocate for the military base and other local economic development. It is time for us to consider something similar, but with a serious public discussion. Let’s not wait for the federal government to provide solutions.

Our schools are asked to continuously improve and the voters expect the same improvement in communications and transparency from our elected school board members.  Parental involvement is always a top request from school officials, but past local governance is not inviting such involvement. Compliance should not trump parental and student concerns. The voters of Camden County should look heavily at local candidates for school board who recognize our current climate. What the parents of Camden County expect is for board members to listen and act with real solutions and not give in to the mantra that we have no funding, that’s an excuse. Terms like reallocation and prioritization come to mind.

Accountability is a two-way street. If no citizen qualifies to run for office, then how are we going to change the mindset of school district oversight? We the people need to do a better with oversight of our elected officials. Parents and community members also need to recognize the importance of civic engagement and act. If elected school board members do not act, then it is up to parents to act.

When school board candidates go unopposed, like many politicians, they become complacent.  This school year, the parents and voters of Camden County have some decisions to make.  Candidates that continue to go unopposed, we, the voters, only have ourselves to blame. Yes, Camden County Schools ranks high for school safety and climate, but the climate of public opinion is more reliable.

It is time that we look past the collection of shiny data points of our high performing school district as defined by out-of-touch bureaucrats in Atlanta.  It appears we need to build relationships with students and focus less time on data points and compliance. Allowing a climate for relationship building should be the priority, not creating a climate of data collection. Students are more than a data points, they are more than a test score, they are human beings and they need the full impact of our highly trained educators and school counselors.

The election is May 22nd.

Jeremy Spencer grew up in rural South Georgia and has served as a healthcare provider, high school science teacher, school administrator, and state education official. Jeremy is currently the market and content manager for All on Georgia-Camden and Glynn Counties. Jeremy’s focus is local news, statewide education issues, and statewide political commentary for the All on Georgia News Network. Jeremy has served as an education policy analyst for local legislators and state education leaders as well as a campaign strategist for local and statewide political campaigns. Jeremy holds degrees in science and education from the University of Georgia, Piedmont College, and Valdosta State University. Jeremy has lived in Camden County for over 17 years.

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