Fayette School System’s #3 wants statewide 1¢ education sales tax

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The number three official in the Fayette County School System is not shy about his request to lawmakers: Impose a 1-cent statewide sales tax to fund education.

Assistant Superintendent Sam Sweat on March 11 sent a letter to Gov. Sonny Perdue and area legislators suggesting that the state consider a “temporary” 1-cent sales tax statewide to help offset seven years of austerity cuts and to promote the gains being seen statewide in public education.

“To get through this difficult economic period, I suggest we look at the state of North Carolina,” Sweat wrote. “They imposed a one-cent sales tax statewide to fund their public education system during these tough financial times.

“I believe one gets exactly what one pays for — if we choose to cut funding another year to our students and schools at just the basic level — then we will get what we have chosen . . . mediocrity,” Sweat said in the March 11 letter.

”Is that what our citizens want? Our students are beginning to make substantial gains from increasing graduation rates, to posting improving ACT and SAT scores, and to accepting the challenge of rigorous Advance Placement courses in increasing numbers. Do we have the moral and ethical right to refuse to do what is best for our students? I know it is an election year, but I implore you to have the courage to vote to support students and teachers in Georgia.”

Some may say Sweat is trying to promote his own self-interest since he is part of the public school industry that would benefit from a 1-cent sales tax. But Sweat said he begs to differ.

“I am a concerned citizen, a parent and, lastly, an educator,” Sweat told The Citizen last week. “It’s time for people who care about public education to speak up. I’m tired of it. We’ve had austerity cuts for seven years and I don’t think it’s right. Where are the legislative priorities? I understand Fayette residents do not favor increased taxes. There are a lot of different options. For me, it’s a 1-cent sales tax for a short period of time.”

Sweat’s comments mirrored those he sent to legislators, citing the potential overall impact to student learning.

“I am deeply concerned with the financial cuts school systems across the state of Georgia have taken during the past several years and most importantly this past year (2009-2010). My concerns are for the upcoming school year (2010-2011),” the letter said.

“How much more can our public schools take in financial cuts? How many school systems will go to a four-day work week? How many students will suffer in over-crowded classrooms in which teachers cannot make individual contact? How much of a salary reduction will our teachers have to take this upcoming year?” Sweat wrote.

“How many programs that enrich and support academic achievement will be cut? What kind of impact will these cuts have on student achievement scores and economic development in the state of Georgia? How do we explain to children that they are less important than other projects or plans that could be postponed until more secure financial times?” Sweat’s letter said.

Returning to the austerity cuts experienced by school systems over the past several years, Sweat said that decrease in funding and the negative affects stemming from it will only be exacerbated if the modest gains experienced in school systems statewide are compromised by further state cuts to education.

“If what I am hearing is true, there is going to be a huge hole in the FY ‘11 budget for education; that hole cannot nor should not be closed at the expense of children,” Sweat’s letter said. ”How can you expect local school systems to absorb another large cut financially?

“For the past seven years our public schools have had austerity reductions which have reduced our QBE (Quality Basic Education) funding by millions of dollars at the local level. We have seen vouchers and charter school legislation passed by our legislators which has stripped away monies from all of our public schools. This year (2009-2010) my school district has reduced expenditures over $15 million dollars by reducing personnel (150 positions) and cutting costs at every turn,” Sweat’s letter said.

“The upcoming school year will be even more difficult because we cannot reduce our budget with large personnel cuts. If the cuts are going to be as large as we hear, we will have to cut important student programs and drastically increase student class sizes. Again, all personnel will have to sacrifice to take furlough days and pay cuts. Is this really what the legislature wants to do?” Sweat’s letter continued.

“As the state of Georgia competes globally, do we want to shorten the school year when we know from research that we need to lengthen it in order to be more competitive? Our students deserve the best public education possible in the state of Georgia. To market Georgia, we need the best public education we can provide,” Sweat said in his letter.

Sweat is third in line behind retiring Superintendent John DeCotis and Deputy Superintendent Fred Oliver in the system’s hierarchy. A nationwide search is underway for a replacement for DeCotis following his June retirement.