The proposed cuts in the anticipated school budget for Fayette County highlight the changes that are and have been occurring in Fayette County over the past 30 or so years.
Time was Fayette County was a small,agricultural community on the outskirts of Atlanta that no one seemed to notice or even care about. Fayette County seldom made the news on the Atlanta television stations and hardly, if ever, made the pages of the Atlanta Journal or Constitution (back when they were two separate
Fayette County’s population actually began to grow in the 1970s; still the county, its political happenings and even crime went largely unreported until sometime in the 1980s.
Several things could be pointed to for the exposure that Fayette County began to get in local news in the 1980s. The success of Fayette County’s planned town, Peachtree City surely ranks as one of those.
But perhaps the first news that brought attention to our county was a report in 1980 that Fayette County’s working population received the highest average annual income in the state. Suddenly the news media sat up and took notice.
I remember well a conversation about the report I had with Quimby Melton, the publisher of the Fayette County News back then. He remarked that we might come to regret the news. He didn’t really see it as a good thing, although the local Chamber of Commerce and other organizations did.
The county began to grow by leaps and bounds. People moved here from all over the country. It seemed like everyone wanted to live in what was touted as one of the richest counties in Georgia. Property values soared. Developers and builders could not keep up with the demand for more housing. As people came, the school system pulled out all stops to meet the growing student population.
What had once been a one-high school county suddenly found itself needing two. Then a third was added; then a fourth; and finally a fifth. Middle and elementary schools were added to meet the needs of the younger students. Our schools were rated as some of the best in the state.
But in the midst of this boom an unexpected reality began to surface. As the younger generation began to graduate, they were forced to move away. And they moved not because they were attending college, but because they could not afford to live here due to the high cost of housing and land. People noticed the trend and talked about it, wondering what could be done to reverse the course, but nothing was really done, primarily because nothing could be done: land was high and homes were even higher.
Fifty years ago the typical house in Fayette County was around 1,200 square
feet. By the mid-90s the average house size was more than 2,400 square feet. Zoning laws prevented the construction of anything less than 1,100 square feet and such a dwelling could only be built on a tract of five acres or more.
Any attempt by a developer to rezone land for the construction of houses in the 1,500 square-foot range was met with fierce opposition by home owners not only in the immediately surrounding area, but from across the county. As a result most developers simply requested changes that would allow only a minimum of 2,000 square-foot housing units. Consequently the stage was set for what we are seeing now.
The high school graduates who had called Fayette County home began to look for more affordable places to live. As they married and settled down they looked to Coweta, Spalding, Pike and other surrounding counties. There they began to raise families and called a new place home.
At the same time the population of Fayette County began to age. Those families who had sent children to Fayette County schools no longer had school aged children. And because the younger people had moved away there were fewer and fewer children to fill the classrooms.
Meanwhile the school system looked to past statistics and continued to anticipate growth. Knowing the system could not wait until the student population had outgrown its facilities, school officials built schools to handle the anticipated growth.
Then the school population began to drop. Enrollments slipped. In the midst of this the economy bottomed out. Land prices dropped, Foreclosures hit record levels. Whole families moved. Tax revenues fell sharply. Houses sat empty. But even though houses were more affordable, it was difficult, if not impossible for potential home buyers to get a home loan.
Now the school board is facing a critical time. Declining student population and depressed tax revenues are forcing them to look at drastic cuts. It can’t be said that no one saw this coming, because even in the midst of the growth some people did. But most of those who were responsible for managing the school system likely found themselves in a dilemma.
They could have stopped building and hiring more teachers and staff based on a probability that the student population would began to drop and then face a real problem if the predictions were wrong.
Or they could have done exactly what they did. In the end, what would you have done had you been in their shoes?
Kerlin’s roots go back generations in southwestern
Fayette County. He’s a regular columnist
for this newspaper.