State, local leaders speak at Cousins

COVINGTON -- Eighth-graders at Cousins Middle School learned a little more about their state and local governments this week.

School staff brought in Tim Fleming, District 5 commissioner on the Newton County Board of Commissioners, and Georgia's Secretary of State Brian Kemp to speak to students on Wednesday morning about their agencies' roles in government, how to get involved in their communities and to answer their questions.

"I think it's important to give kids a chance to be more involved in the curriculum," said eighth-grade Georgia history teacher Michael Wilson, who helped organize the event. "They learn more (by hearing from guest speakers). With budget cuts, we are unable to take them on field trips, so we thought we'd bring the field trip to them and interact that way."

Fleming, who has represented his district and the county since last year, informed students about the local government -- how they are funded through property taxes and local sales taxes to help repair roads and build facilities; how they are responsible for setting policies; and he explained that they must deal with state-required mandates that a lot of times aren't funded through the state. He also explained to them how the county has grown substantially since 2000 and about the structure of county government and its employees.

"It's important for kids to be educated and know about the local and state levels," Fleming said after the student discussion. "They need to be aware of what's happening ... and a lot of times they don't understand because in school, they learn a lot about the state and federal (government), but not usually about the local (government)."

Kemp, who began his term in January after serving from 2002 to 2006 in the state Senate, explained to the students how his office handles elections, business registration and licenses and state archiving. He also told the students that he's looking forward to helping his office introduce more technology to the state, such as allowing business owners and workers to register for licenses online, to hopefully one day make their lives easier.

"As your generation comes up, that's what you're going to expect out of government," he said. "You're not going to want to drive to our office (in Atlanta). We're trying to make it easier to do that. ... As you get older, hopefully you'll see more of this across all government (agencies)."

He said this is the first year that military personnel overseas can electronically cast votes, but he doesn't know yet when the state or nation will start allowing residents to vote online in elections -- some are concerned with security issues, but others think online voting is safer than paper ballots.

Both speakers also encouraged students to contact them or have their parents contact them through their government Web sites and even on Facebook if they have questions or concerns.

"Get involved. It's very important ... to know what's going on in your community, how things are changing and what local officials are doing. In a few years you'll be voting -- and you can make a difference," Fleming said. "It's getting easier and easier to know what's happening. ... Take a minute to study what's happening in your community and state, and you'll be thankful in a few years."

Eighth-grader T.J. Ellis said he is glad the two representatives talked to him and his fellow classmates and feels more encouraged to get involved.

"They taught me a good bit that I didn't know already," he said, adding that history is his favorite subject because he likes to learn about the past and predict the future. "It'll help everybody a lot."