Originally created 01/09/98

Too late to help?

Where have Augusta's economic development officials been?

For the last year or so a group called Citizens for Fair Schooling have been fighting in public hearings, newspapers, airwaves, the courts -- whatever forum they could find -- the Richmond County School Board's plan to build a new high school in the Goshen area off Old Waynesboro Road in south Augusta.

They charged the new school would be a menace to students' health and safety -- it's too near industrial plants, Bush Field and busy Highway 56. The dissidents got little public support.

The School Board and administration were unmoved. They started construction a few months ago after the dissidents were told by a state court to exhaust administrative remedies -- including an appeal to the state Education Board -- before continuing a lawsuit to block the school (a long shot, at best).

Now, after all that, the county Economic Development Authority sends a letter off to the School Board, voicing "concern" over the new school being built on the edge of the Forward Augusta Industrial Park. The Authority's objections are essentially the same as the protesters', except they're couched from a business, instead of a student safety, point of view.

"Any time you have industry next to a school or residence, you could have a problem," such as complaints about noise or the environment, says Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce spokesman Kevin Shea. Companies already located on the site, some dealing with toxic chemicals, are worried the school's presence will boost insurance rates.

Augusta Emergency Management Director Pam Tucker seconds these concerns. "(I)t does not make any logical sense whatsoever to put children in harm's way when there is an alternative," she writes in a letter to the Augusta Commission.

"The marketability of that park is cut extensively with a school going down there," concludes another Chamber spokesman. Alan Jackson, president of the citizen's group fighting the school, is elated to finally have allies. But he might rightfully ask, "Where have you been all this time?"

In fact, Augusta School Superintendent Dr. Charles Larke is asking the same question. "Goshen school issues have been aired in public hearings, formal and informal, since February," he says. "Then suddenly the Development Authority leaps in at the ninth hour. There's something at work here, though I don't know what it is. But it's not student safety."

He may be right. The economic development crowd comes late to the game. Perhaps too late to turn the tide. With all the alarms Jackson's group was sounding, the Chamber and Authority should have entered the fray months ago. Don't they pay attention to what's going on in their own community?


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