• 61°

Seven of eight school board candidates participate in virtual forum

By Daniel Evans, Jenna Oden and Dustin Duncan

Seven of the eight candidates for the Troup County School Board took part in a candidate forum on Tuesday night.

The forum was organized by the LaGrange-Troup County Chamber of Commerce and The LaGrange Daily News.

 The two entities worked together to develop questions for the candidates.

The virtual forum used Zoom, a video-conferencing software, and was live-streamed on the LDN Facebook page. 

There was discussion over the last several days as to whether candidates endorsed by TRACER would take part in the forum. Initially, TRACER said no, but in the final hours three of the four TRACER-endorsed candidates decided to take part. Nick Simpson, candidate in district 3, was the only candidate who did not take part.

Below are recaps from Tuesday night’s forum, broken down by district. There were nine questions asked in all, plus an introduction and closing statement. For full responses on all nine issues discussed, visit the LDN Facebook page to watch the full forum.

DISTRICT 2

Both district 2 candidates Ferrell Blair and Frank Barnes participated in the forum Tuesday night hitting on topics of discipline, community involvement, classroom sizes and teacher morale. 

ORDER AND DISCIPLINE

“We absolutely need order in the classroom,” Barnes said. “We need teacher resources, we need a discipline policy that is flexible and one that teachers can apply.” 

Barnes said he wants to see a ratio of one teacher to 20 students. 

“I think that is a number one issue for our teachers,” Barnes said. “If you lower the number of students in a classroom, you give the teacher resources and the flexibility in discipline. Those are the three keys to productive school systems. And we will score better on standardized score testing.” 

Barnes said discipline problems cause too much disruption in the classroom, taking away teaching time.  

“I would say we’re making educational progress, and I would point to the fact is we have some deficiency. But we have a plan to work on those my platform is 14 points for reason,” Barnes said. “It is a strategic platform that long term it can be applied, and we will see academic growth.” 

Blair said the community can be involved in fixing many problems the school system faces. 

“Kids are facing things nowadays that we never thought of, and we need to be cognitive of that fact,” Blair said. “We need to train our teachers and have counselors available so we can recognize the root of the problem, and not just punish the child for something they are struggling with.” 

He noted that motivation also helps discipline issues. 

“If you can motivate a child the right way, you have to do a lot less disciplining,” Blair said. 

Blair explained that students are also a product of their environment, which has a direct effect on how they act in school. 

“Some of these students are not getting discipline at home,” Blair said. “You can discipline them at school, and they are not buying what you are selling. You have to convince them that they need education and give hope to these kids.”

TAX RELIEF

When it comes to taxes, Barnes said he does not believe everyone is being treated fairly. 

“If you believe that everybody, every stakeholder in this community feels like they are being treated fairly right now, I don’t know where you’ve been but that’s not the case,” Barnes said. “Our first job is absolutely to educate our students, but we can’t forget the other people that pay the bills.” 

Barnes added that he believes every citizen is entitled to tax relief. 

“There is nothing wrong with that. It is your money, it is your school, it is your students,” Barnes said. “… I think it is hypocritical to pick on the elderly saying that’s all they want out of this election … Taxation is supposed to be out of the will and consent of the people, not somebody that speaks for your money because it’s your money, not theirs.” 

Barnes said the school system can be more efficient on what resources it is using. 

Blair said he wants tax relief to help seniors who are in need.  

“What I am not for is helping the seniors who are not in need,” Blair said. “I’m not for a 63-year-old, like the TRACER group wants to do, and give everyone over 62 regardless of their income a complete tax relief on their school tax.”

Blair said it would not be fair to give someone who can afford school taxes a complete tax break, when a young person may be struggling to pay it. 

“You have to draw a line somewhere,” Blair said. “You can’t just take a $2 million property out of the tax digest, just because someone turned 62.”   

READING/TEST SCORES

Blair said improving test scores is about finding the right curriculum and sticking to it. 

“Let the teachers teach it, let the teachers get familiar with it, and it gets better and better over time,” Blair said. “The metric of the third grade is very important because if you don’t get them then and get them interested in reading and get them comfortable in reading then they are going to struggle when they get into middle school.” 

Blair noted that there are outside resources that students can utilize that can help raise scores as well. 

Barnes said reading is fundamental to the success of any child. 

“I believe it should start at home, and I think we should encourage our parents from the moment our children are born to put them in our laps and read to them,” Barnes said. “Show them words, explain to them what words mean. Of course, it has developmentally appropriate, and that should be throughout our curriculum. I am always amazed when we test children, we expect them to test on a certain grade level, but the child is not even approaching that grade level. Then, we try to teach him at a third-grade level, when they are maybe on a first-grade level.” 

DISTRICT 3

The District 3 race features incumbent Brandon Brooks and Nick Simpson. Simpson did not participate in Tuesday’s forum.

TOP PRIORITY

Brooks said the No. 1 issue facing the school system is the budget and fiscal responsibility.

“We are looking right now at a pandemic,” Brooks said. “That is affecting not only our federal budget and our state budget but will affect our local school budget in a dramatic way.”

He said it’s vital that the school board continue its momentum and the productivity of the superintendent. He said the board must keep spending down knowing the probability of state cuts coming later this summer.

DISCLIPLINE IN CLASSROOMS

Brooks said the district is currently revamping its discipline policy because currently, it’s a bunch of bullet points on a board.

“If discipline was able to be fixed by certain bullet points, that would have already been done,” he said.

Brooks said Shumate was hired with controlling discipline as one of the top priorities. He believes the superintendent is going to be successful in doing so.

“School teachers, administrators are being taught to use their best practices, but ultimately that discipline is going to be tremendously improved by the overall culture,” he said. “When we have a culture of excellence, kids are coming into those buildings on those campuses with an expectation of what to do and how to do it.”

TAX RELIEF

Brooks said he believes it’s his civic responsibility to educate the young people of the county, and that should be the primary goal of the school system.

“I believe 99.9 percent of the staff and teachers are striving for that goal,” he said.

Brooks said he’s concerned about the level of divisiveness the issue of senior tax relief has brought to the community.

“We worked together collaboratively with data that was identifiable and was fact,” he said about passing the resolution for senior tax relief to be on the November ballot. “We moved through a process.”

Brooks said while deliberating on the tax relief issue, he asked Shumate if it could be done, and he said yes.

“So, we did. We will see what those real numbers are eventually,” he said. “We have been careful, and this pandemic has shown us that we have to be very careful.”

DISTRICT 5

Both Cathy Hunt and Tommy Callaway, candidates for school board district 5, participated in Tuesday night’s forum.

TOP PRIORITY 

Callaway reiterated that discipline remains one of his top focuses.

“I talk with retired teachers and also substitute teachers and that’s the biggest problem that they have, bar none is discipline issues,” Callaway said. “It has a negative effect on teacher morale. Our teacher morale is not good, it’s very poor.”

Callaway said TCSS needs discipline policies that are enforced equally, fairly and consistently across the whole school system.

“One of my ideas would be to go to neighboring counties that have a good discipline

policy in place and procedures and benchmark them and see what things we can learn without reinventing the wheel,” he said.

Hunt said her biggest issue is that the school system needs to make sure it can meet every child’s needs. 

“Students today have so many more needs than they did 10, 20, 30, years ago,” Hunt said. “We’re dealing with vast problems of trauma, poverty, inequity. I really am excited about Dr. Brian Shumate’s platform, a place for every child. We have to take care of every child’s needs, and that’s difficult.”

Hunt said TCSS needs various options for students, not just ones that send them toward college.

“We have a lot of students who are interested in academics, but not all are,” Hunt said. “We need various pathways to reach out to the kids that that want to go somewhere else besides college. We need arts programs so that study what they love, and it’s just very important to me and it’s difficult these days to reach every child’s needs, but that is definitely what we need to work on the most.”

SUPERINTENDENT/TEACHER TURNOVER

Callaway said Superintendent Brian Shumate’s performance should be judged on how he handles three main issues — discipline in the classroom, scholastic achievement and staying within budget. Callaway also said that teacher turnover is a big issue and compared TCSS to Heard County, where he said very few teachers leave year to year.

“This is one of my pet peeves right here. Don’t tell me we have happy teachers, when year after year after year we have over 100 teachers and parapros to quit,” he said. “And I’m not talking about those who retire. I’m not talking about those that we terminate. I’m talking about teachers who quit. Look, I have summarized three separate years from HR reports. Every one of those years, we had over 100 teachers and parapros to quit, not retire — quit. The main reason for that, I guarantee you, is discipline issues, and not supporting our teachers.”

Hunt said the board has made it clear to Shumate the metrics he will be evaluated by.

She said those metrics are aligning financial priorities to system priorities, building relationships throughout the district, building a leadership team, improving district instructional coherence, reinvigorating district culture, improving K-3 reading initiatives, communicating the superintendent’s vision and strengthening student discipline. 

She also believes the teacher turnover issue is improving. 

“I think that the culture is changing. I think that teachers are not being driven away by unhappiness,” Hunt said. “I’m very anxious to get the stats for this year. A couple of principals that I’ve talked to indicate that they might have one, two, possibly three teachers not coming back, which is pretty normal. A lot of those are because spouses’ jobs, get moved.”

She credited Chip Medders, human resources director, for some of the programs he’s started in the HR department. She said TCSS has also started performing exit interviews with teachers when they leave and has started the Grow Your Own Scholarship to keep potential teachers at TCSS.

PROPERTY TAXES

Callaway said there is enough wasteful spending in the school system that can be cut to cover any kind of tax break offered to seniors, including the one voters will decide on in November.

Plus, he said it’s not mandatory that every senior take part.

“Tax relief of any kind is not mandatory,” He said. I’m not getting all the tax relief that I’m eligible for. So, if you, if you don’t feel like that tax relief is a good thing. Don’t take advantage of it. Simple as that.”

Hunt said she’s glad the resolution will help seniors who really need the help, but the conversation evolved from the early discussions with TRACER.

“I’m glad that we were able to help lower-income seniors,” Hunt said. “That’s what the conversation started as, and we came up with a proposition for that, but then that wasn’t good enough.”

In response, Hunt also referenced comments other candidates had made during the forum about reducing class sizes and doing more for teachers.  

“If you want to reduce class size, and pay teachers more, you can’t do that by taking millions of dollars out of the budget,” Hunt said. “You’ve got to build classrooms. You’ve got to hire more teachers. You’ve got to spend more on the benefits and the retirement funds that come with paying teachers more. It’s a very complicated matter.”

DISTRICT 6

District 6 features incumbent Joe Franklin and Tripp Foster.

TOP PRIORITY 

Franklin said the No. 1 issue facing the school system is the budget due to COVID-19. He said the current board had the feeling the state over projected its revenue before the virus, and the system had an anticipated $1.8 million shortfall.

“That’s a big deal,” he said.

Franklin added a looming potential 14 percent cut from the state legislature in June at about $9.5 million, is another reason to handle the budget carefully.

“It’s very critical that we handle that appropriately and the best way that we can,” he said.

Additionally, Franklin said many students are not getting the same quality of education at home right now. He said that’s putting the system behind as a whole.

“Hopefully, in August, we can focus on what the student needs and get them up to speed quickly,” he said. “But, again, we’ve got to do that with less money. We hope this economy will recover quickly, and we can get past this and continue to work on the things that are important for our students.”

Foster said before COVID-19, he would have said restoring order in the classroom is the top priority, but now fiscal responsibility has to be the top issue. He said cutting wasteful spending is the first place to look.

“We’ve got to do a better job of managing the money,” he said. “I want to find a way to bring better accountability to the taxpayer money by keeping better tabs on our school expenditures and being able to give the citizens a rollback on their taxes. It’s not just about senior tax relief alone. It’s about being accountable to the majority of the taxpayers.”

DISCLIPLINE IN CLASSROOMS

Franklin said student discipline is one of the most challenging and frustrating things about managing a classroom and managing a school system. He said the board does have the ability to move students to alternative schools, or suspensions and expulsions.

“There’s an area that is highly frustrating, but it is an area that we have to address, and we are addressing, and we have to continue to address,” Franklin said.

He said there are the students who have meltdowns and can be worked with by professionals. Then, some students are habitual violators, and those are the ones that come before the board where tough decisions have to be made about punishment.

“It’s difficult to do that, but there are times we have to do that,” he said.

Foster said one person couldn’t solve the problem. He said it must be done collectively with the board with discussion and understanding the legalities of student discipline with the school system’s legal team.

He said there are more measures a school system can take that are legal, but he said there wasn’t enough time in the forum to discuss what those measures were.

Foster said the board should adopt more robust policies that are legal and fair and can be enforced across the board. 

“That will make an environment conducive to learning for our children, and an environment where our teachers can teach, and I promise you will have better teacher retention because the teachers will be happier,” Foster said.

TAX RELIEF

Foster said the board of education would have never considered tax relief for seniors if it wasn’t for the TRACER group making its presence felt at board meetings this past fall.

He said the measure has yet to be approved by voters in November, and there aren’t any hard numbers from the Troup County tax commissioner’s office to get a firm sense of the impact on the school system.

He said the TRACER group stands for more than just tax relief and has no interest in causing financial troubles for any resident in Troup County.

“One big fallacy that’s going around in the community is that TRACER members just want to get in there and crash the finances of the school system. That’s false,” he said. “We’re not going do anything that’s injurious to any taxpayer. We are prudent people, and we’re business people, combined with teachers.”

Franklin said he’d heard the resolution to eliminate taxes for seniors making less than $40,000 a year as a morsel. 

However, he said there are working families in Troup County who don’t make that much money and pay significant bills each month.   

“If we can cut the tax burden, we would do that across the board because it is outrageously expensive to run a school system,” Franklin said.

He said board members would have to wait and see what the impact will be because the board only looked at numbers for seniors age 65 and older, not 62 and older as TRACER has asked for.

“I think it’s a good thing, and voters will decide how to November, he said.