News from the Tennessee Valley Opinion
SUNDAY, MAY 29, 2005


City Council: It's time to help the next generation

Listening to the sizzling debate between the City Council and Decatur City Schools, you would think the interdependent entities were in different worlds.

And, in a sense, they are.

Start with the council. These are trying times for our city government. Beginning with a sales-tax increase in September 2001, residents have pummeled our elected leaders. The previous council made a valiant effort to dodge the blows, but they had little success. Proof positive: Only two of the six elected officials retained their posts, and they were the ones who had reservations — albeit after the fact — about the wisdom of the tax hike and the projects it was intended to finance.

So the mayor and City Council have one overwhelming mandate: Cut spending and, if possible, drop the 1-cent hot potato that so riled their constituents.

Now city schools.

This is a tremendously exciting time for our school system. Many schools in the system have seen dramatic improvements in reading levels. Efforts to quantify educational success have highlighted the success of our schools.

Take Cedar Ridge Middle School. In the first year after it implemented the Alabama Reading Initiative, its students' scores on the Alabama Direct Assessment of Writing rose from 36 percent to 68 percent. The school's 2005 scores show that 80 percent of its students scored a three or a four, the highest scores possible.

The state recognized Cedar Ridge and Brookhaven middle schools as Literacy Demonstration Sites, with Oak Park Middle School receiving the honor in 2003.

Ninety percent of Cedar Ridge sixth-graders met or exceeded the Alabama Reading Test in 2004, a sign that Decatur's elementary schools are outstanding.

What we are witnessing is a school system that has found its stride. It reached for excellence and grasped it.

No wonder teachers and parents are so keen on raising the bar a bit higher. They are watching first hand as students grow beyond mere competency.

They wisely recognize that the next step in educational excellence, a step beyond the reach of most school systems, is not to advance a few pages farther in the textbooks. The next step, attainable through the International Baccalaureate program and through continued emphasis on the Alabama Reading Initiative, is to open students to a love of learning. Not learning for the purpose of getting a better-paying job, although that is unquestionably an incidental benefit, but learning as a goal in and of itself.

The City Council correctly perceives that it operates under a mandate to reduce costs. It is incorrect, however, in its belief that the mandate extends to money destined for the school system. The City Council's control over sale-tax revenue is an anomaly in Alabama law. The council should not mistake that legal control as a justification for depriving Decatur City Schools of funds needed for continued progress.

Rightly or wrongly, voters have made clear they feel the City Council has been a poor steward of their money. The school system, however, has produced remarkable results with limited resources.

The garbage will, finally, make it to the landfill. The roads will be paved. The grass will be mowed and buildings inspected. Not perfectly, but adequately.

City Council and Decatur School System may be in different worlds. They share, however, a gift not available to most.

We have a unique opportunity to instill in our children a love of learning and a commitment to public service. That is an opportunity that, if pursued, will transform the lives of many children. It may also, one day, transform the communities in which they live.

City government needs to wake up to the obligation it owes the next generation. It needs to facilitate, not impede, an excellent school system that wants to be better.

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