DALTON, Ga. -- When the floundering economy reduced property tax revenue and Georgia cut school funding, Dalton Public Schools cut its literacy coaching program in half.
Now the school district is restoring the funding so that every school will have two literacy coaches to help students and teachers. And Whitfield County Schools is following suit, instituting a literacy program modeled on Dalton's.
This "commitment to literacy" was announced Thursday afternoon at a ceremony with a score of officials who gathered in the gymnasium at the new Dalton Community Center.
"There is clear and compelling evidence that children who are not proficient readers in third grade are already on the dropout track," Dalton Mayor David Pennington said, reading from a resolution pledging to provide resources and support for reading.
The resolution will be signed by the boards of both school districts, the City Council and the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners.
Also backing the initiative was Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce Chairman Joe Yarbough, who said that "investment in public education as a unified community is critical."
Dalton Public Schools is boosting its literacy program with some $800,000 it is saving by not going ahead with a tax break it had proposed to try to attract new businesses.
"We're putting [literacy] back ... instead of giving a tax break," School Superintendent Jim Hawkins said.
The two school districts lost about $17 million they shared when collection of a 1-cent education special purpose local option sales tax expired Dec. 31.
School officials didn't mention the ESPLOST, which they desperately hope will pass when it's on the ballot on July 31, until asked about it by a reporter during a question-and-answer session toward the end of the ceremony.
Louis Fordham, chairman of the Whitfield County Board of Education, said, "There's no question the ESPLOST is critical to the Whitfield County Schools."
But Fordham added, "With or without it, it's our plan to go forward with the literacy effort."
Officials also stressed the need for children who aren't yet in kindergarten to get proper nutrition and prenatal care. The community center, which opened in January, is home to the county's Women, Infants and Children nutrition program. Whitfield County has 7,000 children who eat breakfast and lunch at one of 60 WIC sites, such as churches and community centers, said county WIC official Susan Shacklett.
Pennington invited the public to return to the community center on July 19 for a literacy celebration and information session from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.