Originally created 09/22/04

Columbia County's growth affects schools



The Catch-22 in Columbia County these days involves schools and the county's growing population.

Officials agree that growth is bound to continue in the county, in large part because of exemplary schools. However, with such growth - much of which is in high-density housing such as new apartment and townhome complexes - school officials say a burden is being placed on the county's school system.

"I think the overall county is concerned about the rapid growth that we have," said Roxanne Whitaker, the chairwoman of the Columbia County Board of Education. "Even though it is bringing in money, it's also putting some restraints and taxing some of our facilities, like our school system."

Today, in a quarterly meeting with the chairman and vice chairman of the county's Board of Commissioners, school officials plan to discuss how they can be better informed of growth in the county.

"One of the things we want to discuss is to be included when they are planing high-density communities," Mrs. Whitaker said. "That will help us better plan for the next school year."

Commission Chairman Ron Cross said the meeting comes at a good time because the county is preparing for a spring update of its master growth plan.

"We want to be amenable to all different groups," he said. "And, of course, the Board of Education is an important one of those (groups)."

Mrs. Whitaker has voiced concerns to the county's planning commission about plans to allow more housing on Clary Cut Road, which intersects Appling-Harlem Road next to Harlem High School. However, she said her comments "fell on deaf ears."

"I think their eyes are fixed on the dollar amount, how much they're bringing into this county, and that's rightfully so," she said. "But at the same time, we're looking at how much money we're having to spend each year on hiring extra teachers and building new schools."

Edgar Pund, the chairman of the planning commission, said before any rezoning occurs information on the proposal is sent out to all county departments, including the school system, to get input. He said that in his eight years on the commission, the school system has not gone out of its way to make an issue of high-density housing and its effects on student population.

"I know for eight years they've had the chance, and I haven't seen it yet," he said, but added that he would take school board comments into consideration.

Mrs. Whitaker, however, said she and other school officials have attended many zoning meetings, but the visits have all been to no avail. Now, she said, the school system is looking to the county commission for help but worries that too could be fruitless.

"I guess we hear each other," she said. "Have we fixed anything? I can't think of anything we've fixed, but I guess it's good to let each other know how we feel on certain subjects."

Reach Preston Sparks or Donnie Fetter at 868-1222, ext. 115 or ext. 113.

Columbia County school officials will meet today with members of the county's Board of Commissioners to discuss how high-density housing growth is affecting the school system. School officials say they want to be better informed of such growth.