LETTER: Take active role in children's future

It has been proposed that we revisit the 1965 referendum that exempts Rockdale County Public Schools from the state cap on the education M&O millage of 20 mills. The 1965 referendum allows RCPS to increase the M&O millage to a maximum of 30 mills. The residents that approved this referendum in 1965 are not representative of RCPS or county residents in 2011, some 45 years later. A new referendum in a special election is needed. Let's open the debate and let today's citizens decide for today's schools.

The year 1965 was a turbulent and transitory period in Rockdale's history. The county was nothing like what we know today with only 10,500 residents. Our nation was in the midst of a righteous Civil Rights Movement and desegregation. Rockdale followed suit desegregating JP Carr School in 1966. In August of 1965 the Rockdale Board of Education passed a budget with a $60,000 shortfall. That following October, then Rep. Clarence Vaughn suggested a special referendum vote to make up the difference in the BOE budget. The referendum would allow RCPS to exceed the 20-mill cap set by the Georgia Constitution. The referendum was adopted by the residents 367 (yea) to 247 (nay). The school millage has not been below 20 mills since 1992.

There are few issues that impact our community and future more than the education of our children. All residents are deeply impacted by the decisions made by our school board. The school board has raised the millage rate on Rockdale's residents for the last two years. The most recent increase will bring RCPS millage to 24.5 mills. Currently 81 percent of your property tax goes to the school budget. The BOE argues that this millage increase is to cover declining property values in the county.

Other government agencies have adjusted their spending to meet the declining property tax values, a declining economy and reduced state contributions. The BOE's approach to this phenomenon is to increase the school millage until the local maximum of 30 mills is reached or the economy starts to recover, whichever comes first.

RCPS is third highest in cost per child in the metro area; only Fulton and DeKalb spend more per student to educate their students. What are we getting for that money? Do we have higher graduation rates or SAT scores? According to a county by county comparison report that can be found at bocwatch.org, Rockdale's numbers are far below what we are paying for compared to other counties. There are a number of questions and tough decisions that must be addressed, and it's critical that we understand them.

This is not a witch hunt for our school board members nor, more importantly, for our teachers who have borne the brunt of the dissatisfaction and reductions in revenues. This is about an informed and responsive community that directs our elected officials responsibly.

It is up to us, the citizens of Rockdale, to hold our county leaders accountable and to take an active role in deciding the future of our county and children. It's reasonable to open the debate with a referendum before another budget is passed next year.

-- Sharon Pharr