Originally created 01/30/97

Lawmakers agree Augusta school board needs unity



ATLANTA - Richmond County school board members were warned by lawmakers Wednesday that the perception of dissent on the board is jeopardizing passage of a local-option sales tax for education.

Board members are in Atlanta this week to discuss legislation affecting the school system, including retirement benefits, facility maintenance and a proposal to raise the dropout age to 18.

But in a meeting with Augusta-area legislators, the subject of the county school system's sales tax referendum surfaced, causing a flare-up.

The local legislators - who themselves are divided over a number of issues, including the mayor's voting power - found themselves counseling school leaders to "get their act together."

Lawmakers agreed among themselves that the tax referendum will not pass until the board settles the question of its leadership.

"They need to get their act together," said Rep. Henry Howard, D-Augusta. "You won't get my blessing ... you need to get the community as a whole to support it."

Sens. Charles Walker, D-Augusta, and Don Cheeks, D-Augusta, frequently at odds, joined together with Mr. Howard, as did Rep. Robin Williams, R-Augusta, in arguing for unity on an often deeply divided board.

"You'd have a better opportunity for (the tax) to pass with a harmonious board," Mr. Walker said.

The sales tax proceeds would go to retire a $115 million general obligation bond and roll back the millage rate slightly, said board member Mary Oglesby. The vote is set for March 18.

Member Y.N. Myers blamed board problems on "external forces" including the media.

Ms. Oglesby said the board needed to settle its differences individually.

Several board members did agree on the issue of teen dropouts. Ms. Oglesby said keeping young adults in a classroom against their will would disrupt learning for others.

"There are some things you can't legislate," she said. "If we start looking at things like that, we will set up a socialist attitude."

The governor's floor leader Sen. Mark Taylor, D-Albany, is among the sponsors of a bill requiring teens to stay in school until age 18, up from the current 16. The delegation did not give an indication whether they would support or fight that proposal.

Similar legislation passed the Senate four years ago, but stalled in the House.