Originally created 06/27/99

Some raises to take effect

ATLANTA -- A little more than a month after a Conyers campus shooting rocked Georgia, new laws aimed at making schools safer and building student character take effect Thursday.

So do laws increasing benefits for the unemployed, making insurers cover contraceptives, allowing students to get credit for taking SAT preparation classes, increasing penalties for elderly abuse and raising the salaries of top statewide officials.

The new fiscal year, which begins July 1, also brings a $13 billion budget that provides 4 percent pay raises for teachers and university personnel and many such local goodies as hometown high school band uniforms and money to operate theaters.

State Schools Superintendent Linda Schrenko predicted increased record-keeping will be the first change principals and teachers notice this fall from the school-safety bills that take effect this week.

The bills are designed to:

Make it easier for teachers to keep chronically disruptive students out of classrooms.

Force schools to develop a plan for handling campus violence, terrorism, natural disasters and accidents involving hazardous materials.

Mandate character education -- including instruction to discourage bullying -- and broaden campus codes of conduct for students.

Some of what the bills call for is being done now. For instance, many schools have some form of character education, and virtually all have codes of conduct. Plus, Georgia Emergency Management Agency officials already have trained nearly 5,000 educators and public safety personnel in school safety planning.

"The initial impact is that schools will take a hard look at their discipline practices and procedures," said Barbara Christmas, director of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state's largest teacher group. "It will focus attention. It will make that a priority for schools. When you've got strong leadership at the local level, they're already doing that."

Mrs. Schrenko said most school systems in Georgia have been working on their own procedures over summer to improve campus safety.

"Next year, when I go to the Legislature and I ask them for (school) safety money again, I think you're going to find a lot of our school systems will have already bought metal detectors and hired more security," she said. "I have not been in a school system this summer where they haven't taken action in response to the shootings at Heritage High and Columbine."

The superintendent said the new bills will bring more paperwork. Every time there is a disciplinary action taken against a student, teachers or principals will have to compile records that lawmakers say are needed to determine if one group, such as black males, are being singled out for punishment.

Gov. Roy Barnes thinks one of the most effective tools to improve school safety is alternative schools for students causing chronic discipline problems.

The fiscal 2000 budget, which kicks in Thursday, nearly doubles funding for alternative schools, to about $24 million. The goal is to allow every system in the state to have somewhere to put troublemaking students.

The new budget also includes $83 million to boost the state's property homestead exemption from $2,000 to $4,000, more than $250 million for pay raises, $8.6 million in additional funding for reading programs, a $30 million increase in the lottery-funded HOPE college scholarship program, and $6.3 million for 85 staffers to help relieve state crime lab backlogs.

The new fiscal year also brings a new law raising the pay of statewide elected officials and judges.

The raises average in the range of 7-8 percent, putting the salaries for officeholders like Mrs. Schrenko and Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine in the $100,000-a-year range.

The more controversial part of that law -- a 43 percent pay raise for legislators -- doesn't take effect until a new General Assembly is seated after the November 2000 elections.

Other new laws:

Let state officials revoke the licenses of securities dealers, salesmen and investment advisers for failing to pay child support or student loans.

Broaden the state's open records and open meeting laws, increasing penalties.

Increase penalties for battery of the elderly.

Authorize mothers to breast-feed their babies in public.

Require health insurers to cover the cost of contraceptives.

Increase maximum unemployment benefits by $20 a week.

Allow Georgia to enter into the Southern Dairy Compact to set milk prices.

James Salzer is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.


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