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Patterson: School safety needs attention, money

School systems need the state to put significant money toward school security, Bibb County schools Superintendent Sharon Patterson and two members of the school board told midstate legislators Tuesday.

Twice in recent months students have brought guns to school, and an elementary school principal was assaulted last week.

The system doesn’t have the resources it needs to deal with problem students who they find are getting into trouble at a younger age, they said.

The school system’s police force has about 25 officers spread through the high and middle schools, but there’s no money to put officers in elementary schools, Patterson said. Significant funding for safety upgrades is included in the school sales tax voters approved last week, but the state needs to do its part, she said. The system has an alternative middle school for problem children, but the state doesn’t help fund it, she said.

“Our (police) cars hardly run they have so many miles on them,” Patterson said during Tuesday’s pre-legislative session meeting with area legislators. “We need a serious conversation about what the expectation is of school safety.”

During Tuesday’s sit-down meeting, one group after another painted a picture of local governments strained to their seams as state budget cuts push them to make tough choices about raising local taxes or cutting services.

Generally, these annual discussions focus on a laundry list of local legislative priorities. But this year, the conversation veered into a more abstract discussion of government philosophy during a down economy that has sliced state funding for local projects. There were warnings of a generation of children being lost as education flags, prisons fill and government services falter.

But Patterson’s plea, backed up by board members, was the most desperate.

“Our children are so angry,” board member Ella Carter said.

“There are no resources for us ... other alternatives for children who don’t belong in a regular school environment,” board member Lynn Farmer said.

Weekend fights often spill into the school week, Farmer said. It’s not uncommon for the system to deploy three to six “crisis teams” on any given Monday to deal with fights or killings that affected children and their families during the weekend, Patterson said.

Privacy rules in the juvenile justice systems can make it hard for the system to identify problem children, Farmer said.

Legislators weren’t immune to the arguments, but they didn’t offer much hope to the school system or any other government entities looking for more state money. In fact, they said it’s more likely state-funded entities will see more cuts as legislators return to Atlanta for another session of the General Assembly.

“It’s going to be ugly,” state Rep. Allen Peake said.

Other issues addressed Tuesday:

– The Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce said it could use funding to help buy property in south Bibb County near Robins Air Force Base. There are 240 properties targeted in that area, and the idea is to purchase the land so homes won’t be near the base’s runway. That should help the base score better when federal officials look at another round of possible base closures. If the effort was funded, it could buy $7 million worth of the property now, chamber President Chip Cherry said.

— Several local officials urged the delegation to get an increased hotel-motel sales tax in place to help the state’s sports and music halls of fame in downtown Macon. That’s something local leaders asked for during the last session, but that effort failed within the delegation. Legislators have said they’ll work together and get the tax increase passed next winter.

— Reconstruction of the Interstate 75/Interstate 16 interchange remains a priority, and the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce and NewTown Macon both asked for that project to be pushed up if possible. It’s been delayed repeatedly and has no official start date because of budget concerns at the Georgia Department of Transportation.

— Mayor Robert Reichert asked legislators to support a commuter rail line from Macon to Atlanta. There is a federal push to build a high-speed corridor up the eastern seaboard, and “no other single thing would do more for Macon, Georgia” than to be a part of it. Reichert also asked for the delegation’s support to complete the Sardis Church Road extension and extend it further, so it crosses the Ocmulgee River and eventually connects with I-16. That would give Robins Air Force Base a “front door ... off of I-16” and open the area for further industrial development, Reichert said.

— Sheriff Jerry Modena complained that the state doesn’t always pay the per diem it’s supposed to when the county jail holds state prisoners. He also reiterated concerns about mentally ill criminals filling his jail as the state tries to close dedicated mental facilities in favor of letting people with mental problems live in community settings.

— Trauma care funding for hospitals and ambulance services was a priority for several entities, but particularly for The Medical Center of Central Georgia, which sent a three-person team to meet with legislators.

The Medical Center has secured some $3.7 million in trauma funds since the issue became a priority in Atlanta, said Rhonda Perry, the hospital’s chief financial officer. That includes about $600,000 being used now to build a helicopter landing pad on top of The Medical Center’s surgery center.

To contact writer Travis Fain, call 744-4213.

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