Women & children first - or, you know, whenever

I WANTED to be on time for last week’s Mayoral Debate on Women’s and Children’s Issues, I really did.

But once my husband and I worked out who was picking up what kid at which activity, it was ten past six and raining and I was still several traffic–constipated miles from the Coastal Georgia Center.

And out of gas.

By the time I stumbled into the auditorium, dripping wet and famished after a crosstown dinner of tamari almonds and a mint scrounged from the bottom of my purse, I was tremendously interested in what insight the mayoral candidates could possibly have into the issues affecting this woman and her children.

Were they going to promise to add three more hours to the day? Come over and fold 10 loads of laundry? Cook some broccoli and read the first three chapters of Clarice Bean Spells Trouble?

Though I missed the introduction by moderator Mary Willoughby, I’m pretty sure it didn’t involve me or my personal domestic management challenges. The broader definition of women’s and children’s issues in Savannah is this: Providing access to nourishing food, a quality education unencumbered by bureaucracy and a safe, clean environment to all, regardless of socioeconomic status.

Bless the Junior League, Healthy Savannah and the Youth Futures Authority for hosting the debate and addressing these basic concerns.

But this question kept nagging me like one of my kids who can’t find their other shoe: Since women and children make up the majority of the population, shouldn’t their needs just be referred to simply as priorities?

If a single candidate had echoed the same sentiment, he or she would have my automatic vote on Nov. 8.

Not that I don’t believe that all six candidates care deeply about Savannah’s women and children, especially the 33 percent living in poverty. Most of the candidates have served on the boards of Step Up Savannah, SEDA, Safe Shelter and other local relief organizations throughout the years.

They understand that this city needs publically–funded social programming like early childhood development, afterschool classes and youth literacy sessions, and that single mothers need inexpensive, reliable day care.

But the next mayor of Savannah is going to need more than sweeping, fairy godmother promises if there’s going to be any progress made in reducing the amount of kids living in poverty and the 30 percent that drop out of high school.

The mayor’s office can oversee policy and dictate where the money goes, but it does not, alas, come with a magic wand. If it did, the problems of poverty and unemployment would have gotten better in the last eight years, not worse.

It was encouraging to hear that some of the candidates had specific strategies: Floyd Adams promised that he would get the city’s grant writer to net more funding to reinstate some of the afterschool programs that have fallen fallow since his last stint as mayor. Jeff Felser advised investing in a city–wide birth–to–age 5 program based on Lady Bamford’s successful Westside early childhood education center and improving access to healthy food through schools.

Edna Jackson suggested reaching out to local colleges to provide inspiration and health information as well as bringing vocational trades back to the public schools. Ellis Cook wants the city to partner with local churches to fill the need for afterschool programming. Regina Thomas invoked the “teach a man to fish” proverb and spoke to the necessity of educating parents and children in self–responsibility.

Taking a different tack, underdog James Dewberry pointed out that we don’t need more funding, we need better oversight. He’s the only candidate to openly oppose the ESPLOST measure on the November ballot, which would extend the penny sales tax to create revenue for public school capital improvements.

“I won’t support additional squandering by people in charge of funds that aren’t managed properly,” he said, making quite a bit of sense to those still scratching their heads over new fences around empty spaces and the placement of the Westside High School built with ESPLOST funds.

Then again, my kids’ public school has toilets that haven’t flushed since the ’70s, so I’m all for the ESPLOST extension.

Especially because an estimated 40 percent of those dollars come from shoppers outside Chatham County, and if the measure doesn’t pass, it will mean an automatic rise in property taxes to cover bond debt. But you can bet your patootie that I’ll be all over where the money goes this time.

But Dewberry is right: All that past funding hasn’t made a dent in Savannah’s poverty problem. Instead, it’s resulted in multiple programs that he called “big business with many inefficiencies.”

By consolidating, we can find all the money we need to “get the kids off the streets and out of trouble” (a favorite phrase of several candidates that kinda makes me want to scream) and fix leaky roofs over classrooms.

So our next mayor needs to be someone who will, in the first five minutes after being sworn in, take the same pen we’ve all had to take to our budgets and cut the waste. Someone to set an example for the Board of Education and the social service organizations that manage to scarf millions of dollars and still plead starvation.

Someone who can stand up in front of all the women and their children and convince them we’re the number one priority: Not the tourists, not industry, not the Port people in Atlanta.

But here’s what the next mayor isn’t going to do: Sit there while your kids struggle over their homework. Buy healthy food and cook it for you. Collect child support from deadbeat dads. Or wield the power that we have to ensure the money goes where they say it’s supposed to go.

But I’ll vote for the first candidate who promises to put dinner in the oven and draw me a bath.

About The Author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.
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