Franklin to take on Foster for District 6
The Troup County Board of Education District 6 race features two individuals with political backgrounds.
Joe Franklin, who is running for a second term on the school board, looks to improve upon the success of the board in the past four years. Tripp Foster is a local business owner, former Troup County Commissioner and a member of Tax Relief and Comprehensive Education Reform (TRACER) and wants to bring a new level of transparency to the board.
Franklin said he had no intention of running for reelection, adding he was ready to retire, but once TRACER made its intention clear to flip the school board by running for four seats, he felt compelled to run once again. Franklin qualified for the election on the final day of qualifying.
“We’ve done a tremendous amount of work during the first term that I’ve been on the board,” Franklin said. “That’s why I think I need to stay and continue the work that we started rather than have somebody come in with a different type of agenda then student focus.”
Foster said he has deep family roots in Troup County, going back more than 100 years. He’s been in law enforcement, fire services and emergency management services. During his time on the county board, he became a graduate of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia.
He said his decision to run for school board isn’t something that came together quickly.
“It takes a lifetime to prepare for something like this,” Foster said. “All the roads in life led me to this point in time and this decision. I feel it’s the right decision.”
He said there’s a careful balance that needs to be struck between teachers, students and taxpayers.
“We owe all three of those people our attention (and) our commitment as a community,” Foster said. “The children are always first for me and then the teachers, but the taxpayers are important, too, so it’s about balance.”
Another reason Foster is running is that he believes there is a lack of transparency in the school government, which isn’t just limited to the school board. He said the current board had made some missteps, but he said the previous board left several problems for the current board to clean up.
“I believe in truth and transparency, and I do have the fortitude to investigate, find facts and speak to hard issues,” he said. “It’ll take several people that will have the fortitude or the guts to stand up and speak for what’s right, not what our personal opinion is, or what we personally like, but what is morally and ethically right.”
Franklin wants to build upon the improved test scores in Troup County. He said the board made several changes in leadership with TCSS Superintendent Brian Shumate and the administration team. He said the board has always been focused on academic improvement.
“That was on our radar from the start, and we did a lot of things to get there,” he said. “It’s finally starting to pay off, and I wish we could have done it the first weeks we were on the board, but it just moves slower than we like. Now that we’ve got things in the right direction, we need to make sure we keep doing that.”
Franklin said it’s important to let Shumate run the school system and for the board to set policy. He said the board was cited a few years ago when Cole Pugh was superintendent because the board was a little overzealous.
“We didn’t understand the dividing line or the protocol of what the board does and what the superintendent does,” he said.
He said members of the board would call principals or department heads to offer suggestions, and it wasn’t supposed to be that. He said members of the board went through training with the Georgia School Board Association, and now they know the parameters of the school board.
“We understand the difference in those roles, and what they are, and that’s one of the things that the other crowd doesn’t know,” Franklin said. “The school board has one employee, and that’s the superintendent. Everybody else works for him or her.”
He said the board sets policy and hosts open discussions about those policies.
“We don’t pick contractors. We don’t pick who is going to be the next principal. We don’t choose who is going to be hired and who is fired,” Franklin said. “That is the superintendent and his deputies’ jobs.”
Foster said restoring educational excellence is high on his priority list as well. To make that happen, he said it’ll take a team of people pulling in the same direction.
“More specifically, it’ll take four votes on a board of seven people to pull it off,” he said.
Another way Foster said to restore educational excellence is by working with truth and transparency in everything that the board does. He said it takes the board working together to determine what structure and curriculum is best for the local system.
He said TCSS was rated a D by the state one year ago, and of the 17 campuses, only two of them were graded a B.
“The current board is bragging that they made great leaps and bounds by bringing the grades up,” he said. “That’s an embellishment.”
He said the current board score of 70.5 is barely above the threshold of passing.
“That’s not even a thing to brag about,” he said.
TCSS climbed from a 66.1 in 2018 to 70.5 in 2019 based on the College and Career Readiness Performance Index scores. The school system also saw improvement in 13 schools.
Foster said it’s going to take individuals willing to address fiscal responsibly and an investigation into funds spent to get the district back on the right path.
“It’s not something that a new board member wants to go in there and have to do, but it’s necessary,” he said. “I’m willing to be a part of a team effort, and make those tough decisions, look into those tough issues and try to do what’s morally and ethically correct — not politically correct.”
The TCSS system budget is about $116 million, and it has more than 12,000 students and employs more than 1,800 employees. Foster said it’s the biggest employee in the county outside of Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia in West Point. Additionally, he said the budget is about triple the size of the Troup County Board of Commissioners.
“That a big responsibility of people, places, and things including money, and I take it very, very, very seriously,” he said. “And I feel like all the roads in my life, my work experiences (and) my political experiences have led me up to this point.”
Franklin said the current board works well together and has many different backgrounds. He said they discuss the issues in a controlled manner that isn’t without a difference of opinion.
“We have differences of opinion, and if we didn’t have a difference of opinion, we’re not doing our jobs,” he said. “But we are able to sort out of the data and engage in the process of what figuring out what is the right thing for the students.”
HIGH SCHOOL Gyms
Franklin said one of the most challenging decisions the board made during this past cycle was to approve the increased costs of the Troup High and LaGrange High School gymnasiums. Franklin said he voted with the will of the people because hundreds of residents said they wanted the facilities and only a few said they did not.
He said the items the school board votes on are brought to them by department heads within the school system, which have gone through the chain of command before being presented to the board.
“We do the final approval,” Franklin said.
He said the board was highly-frustrated by the way the athletic facilities were handled.
Franklin said the board looked at it, and went back and forth with the contractors, and the conclusion was that the project was under-quoted.
The original price of both gymnasiums was estimated to cost $18 million. However, after the increased costs of steel in 2018, the cost of both gyms almost doubled to $30 million.
Troup High opened its facility in January. LaGrange High’s athletic facility is still under construction.
“After a lot of effort and a lot of discussions, we went ahead and approved it, and it was a split board decision on that,” Franklin said. “Was it the right thing to do? There are a lot of Monday morning quarterbacks, and I still don’t feel great about it, but it’s a done deal.”
Foster said the board gambled with SPLOST money that wasn’t in yet. Additionally, they should have worked the contract in such a way, so if the price of steel increased as it did, the liability wouldn’t have been entirely on the school board. He said it was bad contract negotiations that went as far as the TCSS legal department.
Foster said when TRACER first started, it was primarily about senior tax relief, and it has evolved into more after the group looked into the school records.
“In my humble opinion, 80 plus percent of what we do has nothing to do with senior tax relief — it’s about education reform and fiscal responsibility,” he said.
The board passed a resolution in January to provide some tax relief for senior citizens. The resolution would eliminate taxes for anyone 65 and older, who earn less than $40,000 a year or have a home valued at less than $100,000. According to then-TCSS Interim Chief Financial Officer Don Miller, the measure would have a $1,751,970 impact on the school system, based on figures in January. Miller said the proposal would affect about 2,500 seniors in Troup County.
Foster said the school system would be about to use reserves to offset any costs from a senior relief measure.
“The school system illegally hoarded about $19.3 million over the last five to six years,” Foster said. “The state says basically that they can keep up to 15 percent of leftover money. Anything over that they’re not allowed to keep.”
He said he would continue to look for a fiscally responsible way to implement 100 percent senior tax relief by carefully managing the district’s funds.
“We have to as a team do the research and investigation, put the numbers together to know that we can pull it off and still have a strong and viable school system economically speaking, and provided we can do that, I’m all for it.
Franklin said if the board knew COVID-19 was coming, they would have never agreed to the tax relief.
“Because to voluntarily give up revenue is, that’s a pretty bold step,” he said. “However, at the time, we felt that to give people who possibly are struggling their finances, a tax exemption was a reasonable thing to do.”
Franklin said since the school system is such a labor-intensive business, there will have to be some adjustments.
He said more than 80 percent of the budget goes to pay salaries and benefits, and while the school system’s reserves will keep it afloat for a bit, Franklin said they wouldn’t be able to spend all of it.
“You’ve got to trim your system from a labor standpoint and get it to a place where you can afford it,” Franklin said.
He said the school system also can’t keep going into debt and then borrow money with a tax anticipation note.
“It’s going to be a very trying time, and we didn’t expect this,” Franklin said. “But this isn’t just happening here in the county and state — it’s a national thing.”
Foster said that even if all four members of the TRACER group aren’t elected, he still plans to work with the whole board because he wants to help all members accomplish their goals for all districts. The other three TRACER-endorsed candidates are Frank Barnes in District 2, Nick Simpson in District 3 and Tommy Callaway in District 5.
“I don’t care who gets elected — you can’t get anything done without four votes,” Foster said. “We’re just going to have to build relationships and build consensus with existing board members.”
He said he’s interested in helping other board members accomplish their goals as well.
“I want to find out what’s important to them and what they’ve been working hard for, and I want to help them complete it,” Foster said.
Franklin said if the current school board incumbents are reelected as well as Ferrell Blair in District 2, he predicts the school board will produce some of its biggest improvements in a long time.
“If we don’t win all four of those positions, it will take a step back,” Franklin said.
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