State change threatens STC campus
By Carol McLeod
It started with an email from Georgia’s Department of Education to Jefferson County School Superintendent Carl Bethune several weeks ago.
For the past six years, high school juniors and seniors have been offered a program known as dual enrollment, where the students complete their high school education requirements while attending local colleges and earning an associate’s degree.
During this time, the DOE has allowed students in these programs to be counted as full time high school students as they continue to earn their high school diplomas and participate in college classes.
The students use HOPE funds to pay for their college tuition and other related expenses as allowed under the HOPE program.
The email notified Bethune that if high school students continued in dual enrollment at the current numbers the DOE would cut about $100,000. He said this could cost the high school two of its teachers.
“We’re talking about pulling 136 students out of their program. This could close Sandersville Tech in Louisville,” Bethune said. “The state department came to us and begged us to do this (enter dual enrollment). We complied.”
Bethune said county school systems are already operating under a 2 percent budget cut, which is $400,000 for Jefferson County.
“We’re also anticipating a $480,000 cut in the homestead exemption grant,” he said.
Among some of the cutbacks the school board is considering are eliminating the $10,000 grant to the county’s library system, which could cause the libraries in the county to close; a $50,000 cut in local professional development; as well as 15 percent cuts in transportation, maintenance and QBE professional development.
All in all, the board is expected to consider this month reductions in their budget that total $319,596.
“Our problem is we’ve got to make $1.2 million in cuts or adjustments. That’s not going to hit us until next year,” Bethune said. The board’s fiscal year runs from July 1 of one year through June 30 of the next.
“We have our funding in place for this year and the loss of funding for dual enrollment will effect us next year. We will lose approximately $100,000 based on the change,” he said.
“The state will no longer fund us for dual enrollment students. Since students who qualify for the dual enrollment program qualify for HOPE, they will still be eligible to continue attending Sandersville Technical College through dual enrollment but the college will get the funds,” Bethune said.
If the students decide to withdraw from dual enrollment, the school system will not lose those funds, but Sandersville Tech will lose those students from their classes.
“For us, it could mean a significant reduction in enrollment,” said Dr. Lloyd Horadan, president of Sandersville Tech.
“The impact for Georgia, for rural Georgia in particular, could be very damaging in that, historically, rural Georgia has experienced inordinately high dropout rates, approaching as high as 40 percent. In Jefferson County, dual enrollment has been found a successful strategy for helping kids successfully complete high school and gain the confidence in being successful in college,” Horadan said.
“Graduation rates in Jefferson County are now over 70 percent. So they’ve had more than a 10 percent growth in graduation rate just in the past several years. Much of that success can be attributed to the dual enrollment program that exists between Jefferson County and Sandersville College,” he said. “A concern that I would have is that we might see dropout rates return to the level where it was in Jefferson County before the dual enrollment program began.”
Horadan said if the county could not sustain the dual enrollment program, there would be a reduction in enrollment at the Jefferson County Center of Sandersville Tech of approximately 70 percent.
“It would result in a reduction of services to Jefferson County that are currently offered through that campus,” he said.
Dr. Molly Howard, principal at JCHS, said loss of the program would take opportunities away from students.
“I think one of the most important things we do to benefit our students and our community is to help our students become work force ready and help them access post-secondary education before they leave high school,” Howard said. “Today a high school diploma by itself – we know people can’t just exit high school and be job ready.”
Howard said currently 68 percent of the seniors at her school are dually enrolled.
“We hope that would eventually become 100 percent. It benefits Sandersville Tech and makes them stronger with enrollment,” she said.
Sixteen positions could be cut from schools
By Carol McLeod
Facing the Jefferson County Board of Education in its regular meeting Tuesday, Oct. 14, School Superintendent Carl Bethune said the future is “dire.”
Sixteen staff and teaching positions may be cut in an effort to reduce the FY10 budget by $800,000.
The school system’s fiscal year for 2010 is from July 1, 2009 through June 30, 2010.
Cuts to funding in the current year will create an expected deficit of more than $780,000 at the start of the next school year, FY10.
One item scheduled to be cut was taken off the agenda. The county’s library system, which was slated for $10,000 from the school board, will face its own dire circumstances should that cut be reinstated.
Because of the way the state’s library system is funded, losing local financial support would cost the libraries in Jefferson County the majority of their state funding.
Patricia Edwards, director for the county’s library system, has said such a loss in state funding would force all three public libraries in the county to close.
“I just want to say, ‘Thank you,’ for the support you have given in the past,” Edwards told the board. “I think the impact of a budget cut for us would result in a terrible loss to the county, not just to the children in the county. So I am pleased that you are going to look at this again and I will be back to work with you in any way that I can.”
The board has not made a final decision on this cut but agreed to see if they could find another way to reduce the budget by $10,000.
Items that stayed on the consent agenda and were cut for the current school year include a $5,000 math grant to the high school and one of the same amount to Carver Elementary School. The board cut a $10,000 allowance for board travel. The board will reduce, among other things, transportation, maintenance and QBE professional development by 15 percent each. Textbooks, school budgets and 20 Day Funds were cut by 10 percent each.
Together, these and other cuts total a reduction of $319,596.
“Our situation is dire. Everything we’re looking at now, that’s the best word I can use, dire,” Bethune said.
The superintendent said a state senator told him the homestead exemption grants would probably be sent out next year; however, after that, it’s likely those grants will end. In that case, the board faces raising its millage rate.
“We’re not taking action on 2010. We just took action on 2009. I want the board to understand what’s the situation as a result of the governor’s budget cuts. The bottom line is about $1.6 million,” he said.
Last year, FY 08, which ended June 30, the school system had a balance of $164,670 and voted to carry this over into this fiscal year.
“The bottom line is last year we ended on a positive note. It was a good year for us last year,” Bethune said.
Initially, the deficit for this year was projected to be $865,000, Bethune said.
“We knew that going into the school year. There were no surprises there,” he said.
Bethune said with the board’s permission, his staff brought forward the balance from last fiscal year. Additionally, they have approved paying for the school system’s buses out of their SPLOST account, as well as funding some technology out of SPLOST.
Beginning with the projected deficit, $865,890, Bethune had cut $550,000 out of the school system’s budget. That still left a projected deficit of $315,890.
Then the school system was hit with state cuts in funding of 2 percent, which is $312,440; 1 percent, $156,220; a loss of the homestead exemption grants, $480,000; for an additional loss of $948,660. Combined with the $315,890, Bethune is faced with a potential loss of $1,264,550.
“That’s what we’re short this year – $1.2 million,” he said.
Bethune said the current estimated cuts to their revenue from state funds is based on an expected $1.6 million shortfall at the state level. Now, he said, he’s hearing that shortfall could be as high as $2.5 million or $3 million, which would mean more cuts for the county’s schools.
“Are those the worst case scenarios?” he asked, pointed to a chart showing the budget cuts.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“We come to how are we going to deal with this? Just a moment ago when Mrs. Weeks was talking about that $164,000 carry over that we have from past year? That’s money that we didn’t know we’d have. So I’m recommending that we take that $164,000 carry over to offset this. Also, we made $319,000 worth of cuts. Part of that cut was the library that was in there. That’s not a lot of cuts; but, it’s $319,000.
“It’s all of our professional development. It’s all of our math grants that we had for Carver Elementary and Jefferson County High School. TestGate, which is our program that we use to monitor the progress of our students. … But what it’s not is people. It’s not people,” he said.
Then Bethune pointed out that this means a larger deficit at the end of FY09, which means a deficit at the beginning of FY10.
“Our fund balance will have to make this up,” he said of this year’s deficit. “And we have a good fund balance. But we can’t be going $780,000 in the hole and have a fund balance.
“This all happened after ad valorem taxes were set. We’d hired people and we’d set the millage rate. So this is the picture for 2009, 2008-2009. I’m letting you know right now, unless you direct me to go do other stuff, we’re going to be $780,000 in the hole.
“Next year, you’re going to start $780,000 in the hole. You’re going to start there,” he said.
Bethune said, based on the figures he has now, the expected lost to begin FY10 is $934,954.
“Now it gets into people,” he said.
“It cuts our legs out from under us every way we can go,” he said of the state funding cuts. “The kinds of things we’re talking about are far-reaching.”
Bethune said the school board may have to consider possibly reducing bus routes by two. Currently, buses are not required for students living within a mile and a half of the school they attend.
He said providing buses for those students has been for safety reasons.
“It’s a safety issue,” he said. “And the safety issues are not going away because the money’s going away.”
Five area stations accused of price gouging
By Carol McLeod
The governor’s office has issued subpoenas to five Jefferson County service stations regarding complaints of price gouging during the recent state of emergency, which Gov. Sonny Perdue extended on Friday, Oct. 10, for another 30 days.
“The complaints would have begun after the state of emergency was declared, which was on Sept. 12,” said Bill Cloud, a spokesman with the Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs.
Had the governor not extended the state of emergency, it would have ended Sunday, Oct. 12, at 7 p.m., he said.
Cloud said the stations have 30 days to answer the subpoena. The length of time it takes the office to review the documents varies, he said.
“During Katrina four years ago, we did not settle the last (case) until 13 months,” he said, adding, “We don’t drag our feet.”
Between 1,500 and 1,600 complaints of price gouging have been filed against service stations across Georgia during this state of emergency, Of those, only five were against stations in Jefferson County and none in Glascock County, Cloud said.
A state of emergency allows stations to continue to earn a profit, but only at the retailers’ current profit margin, Cloud said. Retailers are not supposed to raise the price of gasoline already in the ground at their store once the state of emergency begins, he said.
Cloud said the office accepts complaints and then subpoenas the records of those stations where a violation seems likely.
Stations that meet the criteria for price gouging are asked to go to the agency’s office. If the station is found to have been price gouging, Cloud said they try to negotiate with the owners to repay any overpayment to consumers and may assess a fine against the owner.
Cloud said fines depend on the situation. Factors taken into consideration include the length of time the gouging occurred and if the owner has more than one station with similar complaints.
“You just have to look at each one individually. There is no fixed formula,” he said. “Stations keep pretty strong records of their transactions.”
A world away
By Carol McLeod
When Fumiko Kuribayashi became Mrs. Eric Martin in 2002, she and her new husband had little idea that more than six years would pass with her no closer to becoming an American citizen than she was before her marriage.
In 1997, Eric Martin, a US citizen from Wrens and an engineer, met Fumiko in Japan when he was on business.
After the Martins got married, Fumiko applied for naturalization papers and received what is called an INS number on Aug. 1, 2002. She also received a social security number and a Georgia’s driver’s license.
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In September 2002, they moved from Cumming to Jefferson County. They went to the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in Atlanta and filed a change of address.
During this time, Fumiko had traveled to Japan several times to visit her ailing father. Each time, she had to apply for permission to make these trips and pay an application fee of at least $150. These permission papers are called paroles and INS would mail them to Fumiko’s address.
In October 2007, Fumiko was notified that her father had a severe heart attack with complications of pneumonia.
By this time, INS had become the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services or USCIS. When she applied for an emergency parole, she was told that she could not receive one and that if she went to Japan she would not be allowed back into the United States.
She called USCIS and spoke to an employee in Texas who told her that her application for naturalization had been closed because they did not have a correct address.
“It’s not a single entity’s fault,” Eric said. “It comes down to two agencies not talking to each other.”
Because the state department said the Martins missed an interview for which Eric says they did not receive the notice, Fumiko’s file was closed.
“It’s been to eight states,” Eric said of his wife’s petition.
The Martins have even petitioned one of their legislators, Congressman John Barrow (D-12), for help.
“We went as constituents; we went to our representative, whose job it is to help their constituents when they have problems with federal agencies,” Eric said.
Barrow’s office called immigrations and was told the petition was being processed.
“We decided to start all over,” Eric said.
One of the many frustrations he has faced is sending his wife’s application and a check for $360 by Federal Express to Texas.
“The (return) receipt said they got it Nov 15, 2007. They didn’t open it until Jan 23, 2008,” he said.
At this point, Fumiko finally received her 13-digit number.
The process now requires a petition; a Notice of Action 1, which is when the applicant is granted a 13-digit number; a Notice of Action 2, a point the Martins have not yet reached; a meeting with the state department, when Eric will sign an affidavit of support; an interview and then, hopefully, a visa.
Paul Balducci is an Augusta attorney who specializes in immigration law. Although not personally involved in the Martins’ case, he did address some basic issues about naturalization.
“There are so many things that can impact a person’s case,” Balducci said.
“There are a number of requirements. Just taking a marriage-based case. The marriage has to be valid. So they’re concerned about marriage fraud,” he said.
Balducci said applicants also have to have physical exams.
“There are physicians authorized by immigration to do immigration exams. You can’t just go to any doctor. You have to go to one that’s approved by immigration. You’re responsible for this. You have to pay for it,” he said.
“If you pose some kind of health risk, you could be denied. In order for a US citizen to sponsor someone, you have to be financially able to support that person. In other words, the government will let you sponsor your relatives but they don’t want to be responsible for them. They don’t want them to get a green card and instantly go on welfare. The last element that they look at is they look for immigration law violations,” the attorney said.
Balducci said some of the immigration requests he’s been involved in have been handled within a short period of time, but some have taken longer.
“The USCIS processes a million green cards every year. That’s the files that are approved. That’s not including the ones that are rejected or denied,” he said.
“Probably half of the people I meet get a negative opinion. Sometimes there is no immigration program that will meet their needs. Not everybody qualifies,” Balducci said.
In the meantime, Eric sits at home and misses his wife and their son, Ryo, who was born in Waynesboro and is an American citizen.
“I’m here. I’ve been waiting,” he said.
Eric has his own business and travels to sites all over the world to do business. But because of the nature of his business, it’s not feasible to move it to Japan.
Fumiko and Ryo went to Japan in February 2007, on an advanced parole. Ryo was then about 1 year old.
Eric was waiting for them at the airport in Atlanta when they returned.
“They took her to a side room,” Eric said. “They kept her for three hours. I was waiting for her; the flight had landed; the baggage thing had closed. I knew she was in trouble.”
A few months later, in October, she got another phone call from Japan.
“Her father had a heart attack,” Eric said, adding they couldn’t get an appointment for an advanced parole. He dropped her off at the airport and went to immigration.
“I explained we couldn’t get an appointment before she left,” he said, adding the call had come in the middle of the night.
“Eight hours later, my wife was on a plane,” he said. “Because she left without advanced parole, every document was cancelled.”
Eric’s mother says she misses her daughter-in-law and her grandson. She also wonders what other people in similar situations do.
Eric is at the point where he has to sell the house he built to live in with his wife and their son and wonders when they will be with him.
“Just stamp my paperwork and give me my wife,” he said.