Board of Education candidates sparred Tuesday at a Chamber of Commerce forum, with challengers blaming the current board for low graduation rates and spending, while incumbents countered that the system is fiscally sound in a challenging economy and graduation and test rates are consistently improving.
Facing a round of questions targeted at issues in schools, candidates gave their perspective on how best to improve the school system.
District 3 challenger Dariel Daniel said that the school system needs to help students who need help in any way it can. He said slides the school system has shown saying it has closed the achievement gap don’t specify how or for what groups.
District 3 incumbent Sheila Rowe said the school system benefits from community programs like Troup BELL, which stands for building early learners for life, helps go into the home and teach parents how to start educating children early. Also, remediation and Pre-K offered by the school system help children of all backgrounds in education.
District 5 challenger Tommy Callaway said the school system has never met federal Adequate Yearly Progress standards as a system, even if individual schools have. He said that new businesses coming to the area would be deterred by the 64 percent graduation rate in addition to the state’s overall low educational ranking and “there is room to improve.”
District 5 incumbent Debbie Burdette said Kia and its suppliers coming to town shows that they liked the school system, and said the graduation rate is going up and only is at 64 percent due to the change in the way it is calculated. She said other scores and rankings also are improving and “we are doing our best; everyone is giving 110 percent in the school system.”
District 6 challenger Ashley Adams said that the school system needs to focus on promotional development to prepare students for post-graduation life. Not all students will go to college and schools need to prepare them for the path they take after high school.
District 6 incumbent John Darden said there are changes in the common core standards for all schools to help rank all states on the same level, which means changes in standards and likely a drop in test results after those different standards are implemented. However, once the data from those results is analyzed, the school system has the ability to target areas that need improvement and can work with students and teachers to reach those goals.
District 2 challenger Frank Barnes said teachers need a more objective evaluation process to determine which teachers are considered effective and ineffective. He said an apples-to-apples criteria needs to be in place that can be examined to determine effectiveness instead of resting on the whim of outside evaluators observing them in class.
District 2 incumbent Dianne Matthews said standards are in place to reward teachers for achievements over performance in classrooms. She said teachers should be observed in class for evaluations to make sure they are teaching what they should be teaching.
Darden said data analysis of test results has helped to identify and target down to individual students the areas that need to be improved. Graduation coaches can work with students who need additional instruction and the school system has continued to make gains in graduation until the calculation formula changed.
Adams said the graduation rate is unacceptable under any method it is calculated and teachers and leaders in the school system need to better communicate with students to “meet them where they are.” Data-driven decision making is not enough, identifying and getting to know individual children is the best way to work with them to improve.
On the issue of charter schools and the debate whether it should be the state or local board that decides if a charter school may be established, Matthews said she is a believer in public schools and charter schools seem too much like private schools. She added that some charter schools don’t get enough to continue operation and that some in the Atlanta area have been forced to close due to funding shortfalls.
Barnes said the local board should make the decision whether to add a charter school, but it should be based on the will of the people in the area. He added that he was leery of any new program that would add layers of bureaucracy over the needs of children.
Rowe said the school system had to make tough decisions to make up for state budget revenue shortfalls, including closing schools and cutting staff, but praised Superintendent Cole Pugh’s method of performance-driven budgeting. The process uses a group of about 50 people in the community to evaluate and rank what services and budgetary items are most important to keep and make recommendations.
Daniel said the school system doesn’t have a revenue problem, but a spending problem. He said contracts the system with private companies, like for energy efficiency, are unnecessary and said the board’s use of special-purpose, local-option sales tax funds could be better used.
All candidates tackled the issue of whether they were in favor for tax cuts for seniors.
Barnes said he was for property taxes being reduced and said the cost to the school system would not be as great as board members say. He said the board never votes down a spending items and could better use its money.
Matthews said she would love to reduce taxes for seniors, but said other counties that have given similar breaks have raised millage rates and made massive layoffs to make up the difference.
Daniel said he’s seen seniors that are struggling to pay their school taxes and that the board could lower them if it gradually implemented the breaks.
Rowe said the school system cannot afford a tax cut when it is facing a deficit this year and millions dollars more in projected deficits in the years to come.
Callaway said he is for the cuts and said an incremental implementation of cuts would be achievable.
Burdette said the system is facing millions of dollars in shortfalls from the state and there is no way it could currently handle any more drops in revenue.
Adams said the board spends too much money, including paying attorney John Taylor to show Pugh around town when the new superintendent arrived, and that Gilmore County, which made the tax break, still has a lower tax rate than Troup and higher graduation rate.
Darden said managing funds for the schools is a balancing act. If the school system cuts property tax, it will have to look somewhere else to make up that revenue.