By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
At two public hearings held by the Dade County Board of Education on Monday, speaker after speaker testified to the importance of the public library in their lives and begged board members to reconsider Superintendent Shawn Tobin’s recommendation to zero out the school system’s financial contribution to the library.
But school board member Gary “Mut” Massengale said after the meeting the budget was already set. “It’s already been put in the paper and everything, twice,” he said.
Then what was the purpose of the two public hearings the board held morning and evening Monday? “The public hearing was on taxes,” said Massengale.
Indeed, both hearings started with a PowerPoint presentation by the superintendent about the1-mill increase he has proposed to the school tax. Speaking rapidly and illustrating his points with slides of piggy banks and state legislators, Tobin took the audience through cut after cut in state funding to the schools. He spoke of grants that are soon to end, the illegality of mixing “different pots of money” and the ruinous hike to employer-paid health insurance for support staff that took effect July 1.
Tobin said that both Georgia Sen. Jeff Mullis and Rep. Martin Scott voted to decrease school funding by $1.5 billion and complained that they didn’t answer his phone calls. He spoke of the decrease in state equalization funding resulting from a Georgia formula that finds Dade no longer poor. “According to the state, we are very wealthy,” he said.
He talked about the sacrifices the schools had already had to make – axing 11 staffers and the entire driver’s education program – and took a jab at the proposed charter schools amendment to the state constitution. “Where’s the money coming from for it?” he said. “If that passes this year, public education with finances is going to be in dire straits next year.”
Having made the case for the 1-mill increase, Tobin concluded by calculating that it would increase the tax liability on a $125,000 house by $50.60 a year.
The superintendent got no argument from the audience at either of the hearings. In fact, several speakers suggested he ramp the tax rate up another tenth mill to provide library funding.
At both the morning and evening hearing, attendees filled every chair, lined the walls and spilled out into the hall. But none wanted to speak about the 1-mill tax increase. All but two of those who asked to speak used their allotted five minutes at the microphone to beg the board to continue funding to the library.
At regular board of education meetings citizen input is strictly regulated, and even in this public hearing setting the board made it clear the rules were rigid. Chairperson Carolyn Bradford began the citizen input section of the sessions by reading a long list of requirements, including:
“Speakers are reminded that members of the board are without authority to act independently as individuals in official matters”;
“The board may not respond to comments or questions posed by the citizens in their presentation but may instead take these comments or questions under advisement for response at a later time”;
And: “No speaker shall be permitted from the floor to enter into any discussion with the board, either indirectly or through a board member.”
Cherokee Regional Library Director Lecia Eubanks attended both morning and evening sessions and used her five minutes at each to plead for the library’s life in different ways. In the morning session she said that in some Georgia counties, boards of education fund their local libraries 100 percent. She said she knew Dade did not want to be the only county in Georgia without a library, and pointed out that a small amount of money invested in the library could positively affect virtually every student in the system.
She said when each funding agency in the county relied on the others to support the library, what resulted was a neglect that could end in the public library going away entirely, a tragedy for education. “Someone’s access to information should never be based on their ability to pay for it,” she said.
In the evening session, Ms. Eubanks referred to the library’s relationship to the school board as a partnership. She reminded board members of the success of the library’s Ready to Read program, the computer access it provides after school, and its activities for teenagers. “Ask any of the teachers what we do,” she said.
In fact, several retired teachers spoke up for the library and so did a number of teen library users. “I very literally learned to read at the Dade County Public Library,” said recent high school graduate Tyler Blackmon of Rising Fawn. “Call me a geek but I love to read.”
He said the library was not just a part of but the defining symbol of education and the schools should not abandon it because of state cuts. “Just because the politicians in Atlanta haven’t done their job doesn’t mean we can just throw up our hands,” said Blackmon.
Two 17-year-old girls testified in young, quavering voices of their experiences in the library. “It’s because of the Teen Advisory Board that I have the strength and audacity to speak in front of a roomful of people,” said one.
College student Billy Cox said the library had been a godsend to him as he grew up one of four children of a single mother all sharing one computer, and he spoke of how he had learned to give back while teaching elderly people to use computers as a library volunteer. “Some of them didn’t even know where the on-button is, so it taught me patience as well,” he said.
Katie Cook, who described herself as a “little old lady,” spoke up for the library, and so did Katie Kasch, 27. Ms. Kasch said the schools spent $600,000 on air conditioning. “That’s something you could work on,” she said. “Nobody’s going to disagree with you there.”
“I wish we had been able to sit down and talk about this before there was a crisis,” said library board member Linda Wilson. She pointed out the library had had no warning of the school board’s proposed abandonment until Superintendent Tobin granted the library board’s Donna Street an interview two weeks ago.
Of the only two speakers who were not there to plead for the library, Rex Blevins spoke of the continuing drain to school tax collections made by local legislation freezing home tax values and granting exemptions to those 65 and older.
Ann Brown was the only anti-library speaker, arguing that Dade had already been “more than generous,” that Lecia Eubanks was overpaid, and that the schools should not “donate” taxpayer funds to another institution.
But she was in the minority. “If you haven’t got a library, you haven’t got a school,” said one speaker “[The library] led me into a life of inquiry,” said another. “Are you able to help Mr. Tobin shave somewhere else?” concluded one.
Board members did not respond, ask questions for clarification or in fact react perceptibly to any speaker. After the morning session, board member David Powell said he was sympathetic to the library’s predicament but did not think other members were amenable to reconsidering the budget; and after the evening session Mut Massengale made that point rather more clearly. Asked if all these speakers had spoken in vain, he replied:
“They should have come to the meeting back in February.”
A final public hearing will be at 6 p.m. next Monday before the board votes on its budget.