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Editor's Note: Hitting the high school lottery
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FOR MANY OF YOU, this weekend means Valentine's Day. For others, it means another annual event a lot less titillating but just as ripe with potential for heartbreak: auditions to get into Savannah Arts Academy.

Or more correctly and to the point: Auditions to get the opportunity to enter the lottery for Savannah Arts Academy (SAA).

For those of you without kids, the manic drive to get a child into a particular school may seem merely a bourgeois fixation. But for those of the parental persuasion in Chatham County, it's a drama of epic proportions and very high stakes.

Not only is SAA excellent in its own right—ranked the number four high school in all of Georgia—its excellence is made even more stark by the sad scarcity of even marginally acceptable public high schools in the rest of the district.

It's feast or famine. If your child gets into the 775-member SAA student body and is able to cope with the heavy workload, they get to feast on one of the best educations in the South, at a school with a nearly 100 percent graduation rate.

But if your child fails the SAA audition or the subsequent lottery, then comes famine: the possibility (probability?) that your child might have to attend a local high school with a graduation rate nearly half that.

To be fair, SAA is far from the only local academy program with a lottery. It gets the most press because it's the most desirable.

(And full disclosure: I'm one of the "lucky" ones, a parent whose child passed both the audition and the lottery to get into SAA. Yeah, it was a big deal. I'd be lying if I tried to downplay it.)

The pressure to get into SAA is even higher given the large number of private school and home school students whose families decide to fully participate in the public school system only when their child finishes eighth grade, specifically to bid for a freshman slot at SAA.

It may not sound fair, but those families will tell you they've paid Board of Education taxes all those years just like everyone else.

And of course they're correct.

An audition process is part and parcel of a performing arts academy like SAA, and is to be expected. But what takes the whole experience into a level more akin to medieval torture or a waterboarding session is the lottery for those who've passed auditions.

Having your child's future depend on names randomly picked out of a hat makes for some heavy scenes: Families standing and cheering when they make it into the last available slot, as other families sitting beside them literally collapse and weep.

(I'm told the process will be more humane in the future, with the news coming via email instead of the public spectacle.)

So people get worked up about getting into SAA. And people got even more worked up recently when parents at Garrison School for Visual and Performing Arts asked the Board of Education that their students be immune from the SAA lottery, saying they'd been promised that their K-8 would be the "feeder school" for SAA.

Predictably, the proposal triggered a bitter outcry from parents at other schools. The Facebook page for Charles Ellis Montessori Academy, another K-8 school, nearly spontaneously combusted from the amount of indignant commentary.

And I imagine parents of kids at Oglethorpe Charter School were grimly amused by the claim that Garrison kids should get preferential treatment because they say they're the number-two performing middle school in the state—considering that Oglethorpe is the number-one middle school in Georgia.

School Superintendent Thomas Lockamy, who had previously endorsed the Garrison feeder proposal, seemed to back away, and outgoing School Board President Joe Buck declined to pursue the matter further.

Promises or not, the feeder-school concept is a non-starter, especially given the long history in Chatham County of any high-performing school being accused of "elitism," or even racism. But the dispute isn't going away, because this is what happens whenever demand far outstrips supply.

And that should be the Board of Education's takeaway: Not to water down SAA's excellence, and not which schools to favor for too few slots, but instead the need for more slots in more quality high schools.

The dirty little secret is that the Savannah/Chatham public school system as a whole really excels at only one thing: Building buildings. If they'd spend half the effort on quality education as they do on new buildings, we'd be getting somewhere.

If you want a brand-new school, the Board of Education's tax burden on homeowners—over half the typical property tax bill—combined with the district's addiction to the revenue from sales taxes like ESPLOST means you'll eventually get one.

Hell, you'll probably get a new building even if you don't want one.

But the educational product that goes into those new buildings is the real issue, and that's where the real public demand is.

Jolene Byrne gets it. She's one of the candidates for school board president to replace the esteemed Dr. Buck (and the election isn't in November, peeps—it's in May! Surprise.)

She's also the only candidate so far who actually has a child in the public school system. Byrne's take makes sense to me:

"Many parents start grooming their children at a very early age for SAA because they feel it's the only way their children will receive an excellent public high school education. The uproar after Garrison's request underscores how many gifted children are missing out simply because there isn't enough room," Byrne tells me.

"Clearly, it's time to open a second arts academy in Savannah."

Building new buildings is easy. Building new schools is difficult. That's the challenge.

The demand's there. The money's there. The next step is to find the political will and energy to get it done.