The Cherokee County School Board on Friday, Dec. 14, presented its 2019 Legislative Partnership Priorities to members of the county’s Legislative Delegation, including pleas for continued local control of educational decisions and increased State funding for school safety and security.
The annual breakfast meeting hosted by the School Board included a review by School Board Chair Kyla Cromer of those Priorities, as well as time for the legislators to share what issues they plan to advocate for during the session.
The Priorities, unanimously approved by the School Board and posted here on CCSD’s website, are organized by three main areas of concern: Funding, Local Control & Governance, and Educational Opportunities.
“We appreciate the Delegation’s willingness to work with us on our Priorities, which are of such great importance to the community we all serve,” Ms. Cromer said.
Ms. Cromer and Board Member Kelly Poole, joined by Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian V. Hightower and several senior staff members, also answered questions asked by State Reps. Mandi Ballinger, Michael Caldwell and Wes Cantrell, and State Sen. Brandon Beach. The county’s other Delegation members are Reps. Scot Turner and John Carson, and Sens. Bruce Thompson and John Albers.
One of the most publicized education issues expected to come up during the session is whether the State Legislature should dictate a statewide school start date after Labor Day. The Delegation members present Friday all said they oppose such a measure, which is in alignment with the results of a survey conducted by CCSD earlier this year. The opinion of the 11,000 responding parents and teachers was clear, with 92% of parents and 95% of employees supporting retaining local control of school calendar decisions.
Another important topic addressed during Friday’s meeting is how school districts should finance school safety and security improvements, including providing more emotional and mental health services to students.
The State Legislature last session approved spending $16 Million statewide on one-time grants for safety and security enhancements, and CCSD received $300,000. Dr. Hightower said that grant was greatly appreciated, noting that the monies were utilized to pay for two security foyers currently being constructed in the final phase of CCSD’s retrofitting foyers in all 30 elementary and middle school facilities.
Mike McGowan, who serves as CCSD’s legislative liaison, expressed concern that recently published findings from the Senate School Safety Study Committee hinted that funding responsibilities for safety and security initiatives could be further shifted to local communities with a proposed change to Education SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax). The proposal being floated would allow school systems to use the sales tax, which currently is designated for much-needed school construction and technology funding, on paying salaries and/or would allow school boards to create a separate additional penny tax for this purpose.
Although Cherokee’s tax digest has improved and local sales are experiencing continued growth, such funding changes would put CCSD at a significant disadvantage, Dr. Hightower said, as Cherokee’s Education SPLOST revenue is earmarked for current construction and technology needs. Meanwhile, some of Cherokee’s neighboring metro counties, which currently generate significantly more revenue due to a higher volume of commercial and industrial development and where school boards might be in favor of such flexibility, would have even more of an advantage over CCSD when recruiting professionals for the classroom or for critically-identified mental health or safety personnel.
Several legislators noted that they’ve heard rural counties support the change; CCSD leaders explained this again creates a disadvantage for Cherokee, as most rural counties aren’t using their full property taxing capacity, yet benefit from the State’s “Local Fair Share” law that sends them revenue from “wealthier” counties like Cherokee.
When asked by legislators at Friday’s meeting, School Board members and Dr. Hightower again voiced their opposition to the State’s Student Scholarship Organizations (SSOs), which provide taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools and have received criticism for lacking transparency. While a proponent of school choice through opportunities within CCSD such as the Academies initiative, Dr. Hightower stated that most proposed vouchers appear to bleed funding opportunities away from K-12 public education to the benefit of private schools… which the State has no Constitutional mandate to fund.