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Rhodenizer: Guards should be back

By Greg Gelpi

Help is on the way for children crossing dangerous county streets unsupervised.

Clayton County Commissioner Carl Rhodenizer said school crossing guards should be back in place by Jan. 1.

The Clayton County Board of Commissioners announced that it would cut 19 school crossing guards from its budget, saving $110,000, but the money is just sitting in the county's accounting books untouched.

"I'm doing some work on that to get things reestablished," he said. "I don't think anyone is totally against funding the crossing guards."

Rhodenizer said he "never had a voice" in the decision to cut the crossing guards, but that he has been working to get all five members of the commission in agreement to reinstate them.

Failure to follow its own policy endangers the lives of the county's children, Clayton County NAACP President Dexter Matthews said.

"You have 6 and 7-year-olds playing Russian roulette crossing the streets," Matthews said, adding that the board did this intentionally. "I don't think it was done out of incompetence. They knew exactly what they were doing."

When Matthews asked why the board reduced the number of guards, the only answer he got was that the county wanted to save money, he said. Some board members, though, were unaware that the money was still in the budget.

Board Chairman Crandle Bray and Finance Director Dan Martin could not be reached for comment.

Matthews said he is calling upon the public to rally together at Tuesday night's commission meeting. He is asking that they sign up and voice their opinions during the public comment session. The meeting is set for 7 p.m. at the county annex.

"There's no way we're going to lose this one," Matthews said. "I'm sorry that we have to force them to stand up and do what is right."

A mother in Forest Park watched as her son was nearly hit crossing the street earlier in the school year near Hendrix Drive Elementary. It would never have happened if a crossing guard was stationed outside the school, Kathy Meza said.

Meza said she fears nothing will be done until someone is killed.

Matthews agreed with the seriousness of the issue.

"It seems like one or two board members aren't following policy," Matthews said, comparing it to the Clayton County Public Schools system that is on probation. The Clayton County Board of Education failed to follow its own policy leading to the probation.

There are two differences, though, he pointed out. First, no one is calling for county commissioners to resign and, second, this is a life and death situation.

"If they decided to do that with one line item, what if they decided to do that with 10?" Matthews asked. "They would have $1 million that no one knew they saved.

"It sounds like the good old boy system. This may not be the first time they're doing this, but it could be the first they get caught."

The county shifted the responsibility of funding the guards to municipalities. Forest Park, Lake City, Morrow, Riverdale and Jonesboro are affected by the budget move.

The Forest Park City Council unanimously approved a resolution to hire crossing guards Nov. 17, Mayor Chuck Hall said. The city is using a surplus from last fiscal year to fund the guards.

School board member Allen T. Johnson said the board of education is coordinating with the municipalities to resolve the crossing guard issue.

"I think eventually they'll move on it," he said.

The board cut the 19 crossing guards from the budget when it made the budget in June after having notified county municipalities of its plan to do so.

When the budget went into effect July 1, the line item for the crossing guards still reflected that funds were allotted to pay for the 19 crossing guards. The 19 guards, however, had been cut.

"They had the money all along," Matthews said. "They verified that the budget had not changed."

The reduction left many schools with fewer guards and some without any guards at all. Last year, 28 schools had crossing guards while only 18 schools have guards this year.