Have you heard the good news? Thanks to the outstanding efforts of our students, teachers, staff and parents, the Effingham County School System was recognized this past spring by the State of Georgia for making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) as required by the No Child Left Behind Act. In order to make AYP as a system, each individual school had to do the same. We are one of the 55 school systems out of 180 that earned this distinction. What a great accomplishment for Effingham County. In addition, our system met AYP for having 100 percent highly qualified teachers as required by NCLB. Graduation rates also improved last year and, although we are not where we want to be, progress is being made and the potential for greater graduation rates are in sight.
Our vision as a school district is to give our students the best possible education that will successfully prepare them for the future. We are off to a great start this year in spite of the dreadful hot days of August. Many people ask why the school year starts so early, and the simple answer is that high schools need to finish the first semester (90 days) before the Christmas break. Since we are on the semester system, we do not believe that it would be a good academic decision for the students if the first semester were interrupted with a two-week holiday requiring students to take their final exams after Christmas. I do believe this would result in a drop in scores. Our proposed 2008-09 academic calendar has been posted on our district Web site, http://effinghamschools.schoolwires.com, and includes a survey that will allow you to share your opinion of the proposed schedule before the school board votes on it in September.
As many of you know, we revised our student dress code policy this year to include school uniforms. I know that not everyone agreed with this change, but I do appreciate your cooperation. As I have visited each school, I am amazed at how great the students look and at how well they have adapted to the change. Personally, my wife and I spent less money preparing for our children to return to school and our mornings are a lot less stressful than before. The policy is not perfect by any means, but the board felt that this was a great way to improve discipline and take some of the peer pressure off of parents and students. By focusing on providing a quality education, we believe all students will improve academically.
As I ride around the county, it is easy to see how rapidly Effingham is changing. New businesses are being built and new homes are being constructed. There are 180 school districts in the state of Georgia and we are the 33rd largest. As of Aug. 17, we had 10,970 students counting our Pre-K students. We have added 361 students this year. The district has a total of 1,665 employees; 905 certified staff members and 760 non-certified staff members. Every position has been filled this year. The board agreed to give teachers a $1,000 dollar raise this year, the first local supplement increase in 16 years. Teachers obviously don’t teach for the money, but I do believe that in order to hire and retain the very best teachers, we must be competitive in our compensation package. We hired 115 teachers this year for new positions and to fill vacant positions. Our welcome back picnic sponsored by several local businesses was a huge success and was a great opportunity to welcome our new employees to Effingham County.
Hiring highly qualified and motivated teachers allows the Board of Education to provide all students with the best possible education in the most efficient manner possible. Our greatest challenge, however, is financing our ever-growing need for new facilities. This year we did keep the millage rate at 15.57 mills. Although this was not an increase in the millage rate (we rolled it back the year before), it was considered a tax increase because of increased assessments.
Fortunately, for the past several years, E-SPLOST funds have allowed the school system to progress with much needed construction projects. We moved into Blandford Elementary last year and this year we will move into a new band and chorus room at South Effingham Middle School, a new gym at South Effingham High School, and classroom additions at South Middle, Ebenezer Middle, Effingham County High School, South Effingham High School and Sand Hill Elementary. Our next big building project will be the new Effingham County Middle School on Highway 119, which will replace the current facility that was built in 1956. As we continue to grow, additional land will need to be purchased and additional schools built. I am thankful that all of these needs will be met through E-SPLOST. Thank you voters for supporting this important program.
Last spring, I suggested in a letter to state Rep. Carter that a reasonable compromise to the homestead exemption legislation be considered in order to lessen the impact on seniors who are at a certain income level and are having difficulty paying their taxes. As a system, we spend less money than the average system in Georgia. In 2006, we spent $2,066.91 per student in local funds compared to the state average of $3,336.28. Our district would not be able to spend the state average based on the value of a mill in Effingham County. Based on what one mill of taxes produces, our system could not rise to even the state average if the board levied the maximum allowed, which is 20 mills. School districts in Georgia are given local control vested in boards of education that may decide how to best supplement the basic funding provided by state dollars. As you see, school funding is not equal around the state. Local tax dollars allows local boards to supplement the educational program in order to deliver a standard of education expected by the communities we serve. I believe our citizens receive an excellent return on the investment of local tax dollars, and our test scores, graduation rate improvement and sports and music programs prove it.
As we plan for the future, our Board of Education is interested in pursuing a career academy or vocational high school to meet the need for a third high school. The vision is to build the facility next to the Savannah Technical College in order to encourage a seamless transition from high school to technical college. National statistics show that only 33 percent of high school graduates complete a two- or four-year college program. That means, of course, that 67 percent of high school graduates do not obtain a college degree. Although our graduation rate improved to 73.2 percent last year, nationally the dropout rate is around 33 percent. We cannot settle for this in Effingham County. The goal is for every student who enters our school system to graduate with a plan for their future in mind. Keep us in your thoughts as we submit an application to the state for help in funding this project. The career academy is not just a school system project but also an entire community initiative project.
The Effingham County School System’s motto is “Tradition with a Vision.” I believe we all agree that it’s important to maintain our great traditions as a school system and yet have a realistic vision for the future. It is important that every decision we make as a school board and superintendent be based upon what is best for our students; therefore, I always welcome your comments and opinions. Board members, as part of their service, also expect to hear from constituents regarding school-related issues. I encourage parents and guardians to attend school board meetings*, school council meetings, PTA/PTO meetings and, of course, parent/teacher conferences. You are, after all, your child’s number one partner in their education. Thank you again for your continued support and help in preparing Effingham County’s children for the future.
*To obtain a place on the school board meeting agenda, please contact the superintendent’s office at 754-1537 at least seven days prior to the scheduled meeting.
Randy Shearouse is superintendent of Effingham County schools.