Roy Exum: How Fairyland Is Punished

Thursday, October 24, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

It makes absolutely no sense that Fairyland Elementary School is the only school in Walker County, Ga., that receives no federal funding. And only because the percentage of children who receive reduced or free lunches is not higher, it literally costs the school and the 203 children who go there hundreds of thousands of dollars each year that taxpayers in the same Lookout Mountain community pay to help other Georgia schools.

Fairyland was named as a “Model School” by the state this August, an honor that decrees Fairyland is once again the top performing elementary school in the northwest part of the state, yet the PTO is believed to be the only one in the state that pays for salaries and services no other elementary school has to worry about.

“Our entire educational system is broken,” said PTO vice president Caroline Williams yesterday. “Walker County’s budget for education was cut $7.5 million this year – 10 percent – and that directly affects our children. Until the state realizes that education is important, Georgia will remain one of the worst states for educating our young in the entire country.”

But nowhere in the state is the pain as severe as at Fairyland, a beautiful school in a healthy community that annually produces test scores that are among the best in Georgia. “It’s as though we are punished for being good,” said PTO president Melanie Mercer, “and Walker County education superintendent Damon Rains will agree with that.

“He can only give federal money to schools that qualify. A state law forbids our Town from supplementing the school like the Town of Lookout Mountain in Tennessee does for Lookout Mountain Elementary, so our hands are tied. We have no place to help pay for a school nurse, a full-time secretary or many other needs that are essential to education,” the former University of Georgia tennis star explained.

So what Melanie and Caroline have done is appealed to the community. The PTO has started an Education Fund but, instead of supplying perks for the school like most PTOs around the country, Fairyland is constantly struggling to makes ends meet. Other elementary schools in the county are able to use federal funds to offset the county budget cuts but at Fairyland the parents’ organization is now scrambling to fill those needs.

The two PTO officers feel the blame clearly belongs to its state representatives, state Rep. John Deffenbaugh (who once had a child attend Fairyland) and state Senator Jeff Mullis. “We believe any state representative who doesn’t stand up for education shouldn’t be in office. Nothing is more important to our future and when the county budget is cut 10 percent that is pretty serious.”

Educators across Georgia are heartened that Governor Nathan Deal will be challenged by state school superintendent John Barge in 2014. “By Barge being in the race, education in Georgia will play a prominent role at the polls,” Williams explained, “and anyone with a child in school will watch the state and local races closely. All we are asking is that our children be considered; nothing is more important than their education.”

She explained when Austerity Cuts took place in Georgia in 2003, the state’s Department of Education took such a hit the state now owes the department one billion dollars. “Can you imagine doing that to the state’s children?” said Mercer. “Right now teachers in Walker County are forced to take eight furlough days a year and they have cut the school year from 180 days to 168 days. That’s illegal but they got a waiver. How do we get a waiver for federal funds?”

An election will be held in Georgia this Nov. 5 to determine how “Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax” will be disbursed and, according to Mercer, the outcome could be a Godsend. “Right now it can only be used for capital improvements. Not long ago they came and renovated our gym, which was nice, but we need teachers and staff much worse. We hope for a good turnout at the polls.”

More than that, the Fairyland mothers want Georgia voters to focus on who gets elected next November. “We have to study those who are running and determine their commitment to education. Politicians will say they give 56 percent to education but we aren’t talking about the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech. We are talking about our elementary and secondary schools.”

The fact Signal Mountain now has a junior and senior high school has hurt both Lookout Mountain communities because both Tennessee and Georgia students must go to middle and high schools elsewhere. “We dream of starting a middle school at Fairyland, going through the eighth grade and inviting interested families who live in Tennessee to pay a small tuition,” said Mercer, “but right now we are being slammed because we don’t quite qualify for federal funding.

“That’s not fair to our children. We are at a disadvantage yet we pay taxes just like everybody else. We are proud to live in Walker County, but we aren’t being treated fairly and that is wrong.”

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