I’M FOND of telling anyone who will listen that the Savannah-Chatham County School Board President is our most important local elected official.
The Mayor of Savannah — the local election that gets all the attention — is still just one vote out of nine.
The County Commission Chairman is important constitutionally, but controls a relatively small scope and budget.
You could certainly make the case that the School Superintendent and the Savannah City Manager are themselves even more crucial than the Board President, but those are appointed positions. You have an indirect voice, at best, in choosing them.
But School Board President is where the rubber meets the road in the area everyone says is the most important area of all: the future of our children.
The Board President isn’t only vital because the office deals with children; the Savannah-Chatham School Board is by far our largest levier of property taxes.
May 22 is election day for School Board offices, with early voting continuing through May 18. (Runoffs, if needed, would happen July 24, when many voters are away on vacation.)
Through a quirk of law, these crucial School Board elections come in a very narrow window of campaigning, during a time when the voters most impacted by the election are most exhausted from another school year and looking forward to summer.
Literally the last thing you want to do right now is to go vote. But vote you must. It’s important.
This issue features the last two candidate profiles of the five candidates for Board President running.
I very much appreciate the willingness and candor of all five candidates in being interviewed by Orlando Montoya and myself over the past few weeks.
It’s like pulling teeth to get people interested in voting in School Board elections, and not just because of the bad timing.
With one Google search, in seconds you can pull up thousands of articles about Donald Trump and national politics and controversies. Most of these controversies will end up having little to no impact on your daily life, or on the lives of your children.
But if you want a drill-down analysis of school expenditures, efficiencies, advantages and disadvantages, whether nationally or locally, you’ll be hard pressed to find much.
It’s odd, because school politics has for generations been the most bitter and tumultuous not only in this town, but in most towns.
The acrimonious tone of the last four years here — in which a reforming newbie to politics, current Board President Jolene Byrne, was involved in numerous dust-ups with both the former and current Superintendent, most of the Board, and the daily newspaper, to name a few — is actually not that unusual as far as school politics goes.
Savannah City Council is notorious for the often unseemly debates and shenanigans that go on during regular meetings. But the most toxic City Council meeting can seem like a birthday party or collegial croquet game compared to a “normal” School Board meeting here.
I confess to being morbidly entertained by City Council meetings, which is no secret to anyone who follows my coverage of them. However, the sheer personal viciousness you can see on display at some School Board meetings can actually be quite difficult to watch.
A browse through any of the local Facebook pages devoted to local education issues is like a panoply of Kafkaesque, painfully individualized horror stories.
Whether it’s a desperate parent of a special needs child being ignored or shunted around, or a desperate parent of a child who isn’t winning any of the school lotteries, or a desperate teacher demoralized by being paid more in lip service than in actual wages.... there’s a lot of desperation out there.
I’m one of the lucky ones. In putting two daughters through local public schools, we got into the schools we wanted, and avoided the more egregious problems many other families have had to deal with.
But I acknowledge that many, many local parents have quite a different story to share.
Another thing I’m fond of telling anyone who will listen is that root cause of almost all our problems here isn’t actually poverty or crime, as most people will tell you, but education.
Poverty and crime don’t come out of nowhere. They directly stem from poor education outcomes.
For years I’ve heard, and participated in, the criticism that Savannah can’t seem to attract high-quality, high-paying employers. (Gulfstream is almost an extreme anomaly in this regard.)
But any time you actually ask these potential employers what turned them away, they almost never say poverty or crime. They almost always say the problem is that we have a very poorly prepared workforce.
By far the best investment we can make in the future of Savannah and Chatham County is to upgrade our educational system. If there is such a thing as a single solution to our problems, the closest thing to it is improving local public schools.
But, improving our school system seems to be the area where progress is in fact the slowest.
I implore you to take a break from endless, mindless Facebook debates over national partisan politics where not a single mind or vote is changed.
I implore you to take some of that time – if you haven’t already — to learn about all the candidates running for School Board and for School Board President this year, and to take time to vote.
If you don’t think schools affect you because you’re childless, you couldn’t be more wrong. Every educational outcome, good or bad, will eventually affect you in some way if you live and work here.
And not that money’s the most important thing, but if you don’t think school property taxes affect you because you rent, you also couldn’t be more wrong. If property taxes go up, your landlord will raise your rent accordingly.
So please vote as if someone’s life depends on it — because someone’s life actually does.