Input needed on school chief search

The photograph Tuesday on the front page of The Albany Herald spoke volumes.

At the end of the room sat the Dougherty County School Board, waiting to hear from members of the public about what characteristics they would like to see in the county's next superintendent of schools.

Between the board members and the photographer were chairs -- mostly empty ones.

While the Georgia School Boards Association, the agent conducting the nationwide search for the next chief administrative officer of the Dougherty School System, says that it has received input from 407 online and 11 mailed responses to its community survey, only eight people showed up at the Monday-evening forum.

That was, frankly, a pitiful showing.

The superintendent of schools is a critical position in the 26-school system that serves 16,400 students and carries a spending budget of $122.1 million for the current fiscal year. As the CEO of the school system, the successes and failures reflect on the skills and leadership exhibited by the superintendent.

It's a weighty job and every individual who resides in Dougherty County has a vested interest in how well it's executed. The students who are in class today will in the future be part of the work force that will enable the county to move forward or cause it to regress.

Whomever the choice is will be facing some challenging circumstances. Poverty is a big issue that ends up negatively impacting education.

The latest U.S. Census numbers show that in 2008 22,077 people, 23.9 percent of Dougherty's population of 92,300, had incomes at or below poverty level. While that percentage is nearly flat from 2007, the problem is more acute among the African-American population, where the percentage rose from 32 percent in 2007 to 33.8 percent last year with 1,710 more people falling below that economic mark. Poverty among the white population dropped from 8.6 percent in 2007 to 3.7 percent in 2008, a decline of 1,570 people. Meanwhile, the overall white population of the county declined by 1,209.

Between the two years, the number of households receiving food stamps also rose, from 5,657 in 2007 to 6,964 in 2008, a 23.1 percent increase. As a percentage of total households in the county, food stamp recipients rose from 15.9 percent in 2007 to 19.3 percent in 2008.

And if you wonder what education can do for these types of numbers, look at these figures. Of Dougherty County's overall population age 25 and older (57,145 in 2008), 9,097 or 15.9 percent were living in poverty. That nearly doubles to 30.3 percent when you look at the group that failed to obtain at least a high school diploma. Among those who got a diploma or GED, the percentage dropped to 17.9 percent. With some college or an associate's degree, the percentage trimmed a little more to 14.6 percent. But for those who had obtained at least a four-year bachelor's degree, only 1.7 percent were living in poverty.

Obtaining a post-secondary education depends on how well the schools do in preparing young minds for college. And the person who charts the course of the day-to-day work of the school system has a great deal of influence on how well that job is done.

We encourage citizens to get involved in this discussion. Let the School Board know what qualities you think the next school chief needs. Even if you don't have a student in the system, you have a real interest as a taxpayer, as a business owner and as a citizen.

There's little that can be done about the numbers that have already been crunched. They are what they are.

But don't pass up a chance today to influence tomorrow.