The Blue Ridge Bar Association at the Cherokee County School Board meeting on Thursday night presented a $10,000 donation to support CCSD School Nutrition’s “pay it forward” fund that is used to pay off students’ unpaid breakfast or school lunch debts. Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian V. Hightower accepted the donation, which was presented on behalf of the Association by its immediate Past President Marsha Terry, as Treasurers Emily Evett, left, and Jenny Rose look on.
The Cherokee County School Board during its meeting Thursday heard operations updates and talked about construction of a replacement Cherokee High School as a possible project to be funded in the next Education SPLOST renewal.
NEW CHEROKEE HS CONSTRUCTION
During its pre-meeting strategic work session on Thursday evening, School Board members reviewed student enrollment and school capacity reports from the 20th-day of school, when enrollment typically peaks, as well as projected enrollment growth.
While Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian V. Hightower describes this school year as an “anomaly” for enrollment and facility usage levels given the pandemic and the operation of both in-person and Digital Learning models, the trend in steady to slower enrollment growth is expected to continue.
This is a contrast to the explosive growth experienced by the School District prior to the Great Recession, which led to a housing boom and a school construction boom, the mortgage for which still is being retired through a portion of Education SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax). The five-year sales tax is up for renewal in 2021, and Dr. Hightower said Thursday that, in addition to a focus on continuing to pay off that mortgage, it may now be the time for the School Board to consider renovating or replacing Cherokee High School.
It is both the oldest and the largest high school in the School District, with significant funds invested in renovations and expansions over the decades, including its recent expansion into the adjacent Canton Elementary School campus. As Cherokee HS is an older and heavily used campus, Dr. Hightower said he foresees the need for costly maintenance and renovations to continue.
“We’re not going to see a huge enrollment boom over the next SPLOST,” he said, noting that CCSD’s overall enrollment is expected to only grow by about 2,500 students over the next decade. That slowing growth could allow for a focus on smaller improvement projects, infrastructure updates and construction of a replacement Cherokee HS. “You can take an older facility, like Cherokee High School that will be 70 years old at the end of the next SPLOST, and build a replacement.”
The core buildings on the Cherokee HS campus opened in 1956, with numerous additions and renovations since including $16 Million in investments since 2002. The school, which currently serves 2,850 students, has seen its enrollment jump by 25% during those past eight years. Expansions, most notably the absorption of the neighboring Canton ES campus now known as Cherokee North, gave the campus breathing room with school capacity now at 83%. While capacity no longer is considered overcrowded, there are lingering issues due to the age of many buildings on campus ranging from narrow hallways and small bathrooms to more costly regular maintenance work.
“We know it’s not the quality of the building that matters, it’s the teachers,” said School Board member Mike Chapman, whose two sons both graduated from Cherokee HS, “but the building is obviously dated.”
Dr. Hightower did note that the school is the most expensive to maintain, but the School Board has invested to keep it useful and aligned with newer schools as far as technology, equipment and other infrastructure.
Should School Board members opt to put the project on its official Ed SPLOST list next summer in anticipation of the November election, Dr. Hightower noted they also would have the opportunity to determine the future use of the existing campus. Construction, should it begin in 2023 when funding – which runs $90 Million to $100 Million for a new high school campus – would be available through the Ed SPLOST renewal, would take nearly three years, allowing for a potential opening date in 2026.
Board members could choose to then reopen the former Canton Elementary School and return its students home, as since the consolidation they have been split between Knox and R.M. Moore Elementary School STEM Academies. Mr. Chapman noted that “we did promise the community we’d bring back Canton Elementary, so we should consider it.” The main high school campus could be repurposed, Dr. Hightower said, such as for a career and technical high school academy, perhaps as a magnet school or a half-day option open to students from all six high schools who would go there to take specific career electives not offered at their school.
During the work session, Dr. Hightower alluded to the fact an executive session was planned for later that night to discuss real estate, and he could disclose more then about the potential for a new Cherokee High School. Following that closed session, which is permitted by law to discuss real estate purchases and sales, the School Board emerged and unanimously approved for Dr. Hightower to pursue the purchase of real estate. While details of pending real estate transactions cannot be disclosed, the School Board has long been searching for an ideal site for a new high school in the greater Canton area.
As part of the work session conversation about enrollment trends, Dr. Hightower said the current enrollment and school capacity levels show no schools as “critically overcrowded,” so he has no plans to ask the School Board to make any boundary changes for next school year. There are several campuses, such as Creekland MS, which is operating at 108% capacity, and Creekview HS, which is operating at 107% capacity, that could benefit from classroom additions in the next Ed SPLOST build, and there may be some boundary adjustments to consider between Freedom MS and Teasley MS in the future, he said.
“I’m glad to hear that we don’t need to look at redistricting this year,” Chair Kyla Cromer said. “That’s good news.”
School Board members, during both the work session and regular meeting, heard updates on school operations for the in-person learning, Digital Learning and hybrid models.
Chief Academic Officer Dr. Nicole Holmes spoke about improvements made to the Digital Learning model and continuing adjustments.
Eight teachers focused on providing live direct instruction to Digital Learning middle school students now are conducting these new sessions, which Dr. Holmes has observed, and reported as successfully engaging students through interactive lessons. She noted that participation totals have been disappointing, given that this service was provided in response to parent requests for more interaction, but she is hopeful it will increase.
She also shared with the School Board very welcome news about the high school Digital Learning program – the NCAA has extended approval of the Apex program for its crediting purposes. The School District had requested this approval so that participation in Apex classes would not negatively impact student athletes who chose to learn at home.
The closure of all schools in the spring has had lingering effects on the Special Education department. While Special Education students were provided services virtually in the spring, and Digital Learning with Special Education services has been extended for this school year for students whose families prefer this model, the spring shutdown halted evaluations for services, which must be conducted in person. In order to increase access to evaluations for Special Education services, Dr. Hightower has approved using a portion of federal CARES Act funding that is designated for Special Education services to pay for evaluations to now also be offered on Saturdays and during school breaks, beginning with Fall Break next week.
Dr. Hightower said now that operations are more settled in CCSD’s seventh week, he and his staff are sharing reopening best practices with other school leaders through conference calls and visits. Fulton County staff will be visiting soon to talk with Dr. Holmes and her staff about CCSD’s Digital Learning model.
Chair Cromer said she recently participated in a conference call with School Board members from other large school systems.
“We are light years ahead of a lot of plans that are still trying to figure out what school is going to look like and how they’re going to reach kids,” she said. “I’m so proud of what we’ve been able to do.”
During the regular meeting, the Board heard from two speakers for Public Participation, one who opposes the hybrid model in place at her son’s high school, and one who would like to see the hybrid model used in all schools. The hybrid model is in place at three high schools – Creekview, Etowah and Woodstock – until Oct. 9; it was enacted following a spike in positive cases and resulting high levels of mandated precautionary quarantines.
School Board member Clark Menard, who said he now opposes the hybrid model after seeing it in practice as a Woodstock HS parent, describing it as a the “worst” of the three models in place, asked Dr. Hightower to reconsider its usage. Mr. Menard expressed frustration that, while infection rates remain higher at Etowah HS despite the model, rates are lower at Creekview HS and Woodstock HS yet they remain in a pattern that only allows two days of in-person instruction each week. He raised concerns about the equity of the education for these students, compared with those at CCSD’s three other high schools, and noted that CCSD has not seen the hospitalization of students or significant transmission within schools.
Mr. Chapman echoed Mr. Menard’s concerns, adding that he supports ending the hybrid model’s use and is “optimistic and hopeful” that the three high schools can return to full in-person learning as soon as possible.
Dr. Hightower, who last month said the hybrid model would be considered as an alternative to a two-week full shutdown of a school seeing a high level of positive cases and quarantines, said his staff was closely monitoring the three schools, and he is open to change.
“We are not committed long term to the hybrid,” he said. “If it turns out this isn’t the right model for us, then we’ll scrap it.”
OTHER SCHOOL BOARD BUSINESS
The School Board heard two updates in regard to safety and security: the installation of a new security system at high schools, and the planned use of school safety zone cameras by local law enforcement to catch speeders.
The Centegix CrisisAlert system has been added to CCSD’s six high schools, as well as ACE Academy, the alternative daytime middle and high school center, and Tippens Education Center, which serves students in all grades who need additional emotional and behavioral support services.
The system, which was funded using a portion of the State’s safety and security grants to schools, gives all staff a lanyard badge that can be pressed to call for help at different levels, from requesting a school nurse all the way up to triggering a Code Red. The system not only notifies appropriate staff and law enforcement of emergencies, it also can trigger email notifications to all staff, schoolwide PA speaker announcements and/or strobe lights, when needed for higher-level emergencies.
Police Chief Buster Cushing also updated the School Board on recent news that law enforcement agencies will be installing speed-detector cameras in school safety zones.
The Cherokee Sheriff’s Office will be seeking State permits to install the cameras in the school safety zones on State highways leading to Free Home ES, Knox ES STEM Academy and R.M. Moore ES STEM Academy, and the Canton Police Department already has requested them for the zones for Hasty ES Fine Arts Academy, Teasley MS and Cherokee HS. The Ball Ground, Holly Springs and Woodstock Police Departments are considering cameras for the zones in the communities they serve.
Chief Cushing said the cameras will capture the license plates of cars exceeding the zone’s speed limit by 10 miles an hour or more; the vehicle owners will receive a civil ticket by mail. If citizens fail to pay these tickets, they will not be able to renew their car tag. The initiative was prompted, he said, by super speeders in the zones, citing the example of drivers topping 85 miles an hour on the stretch of Highway 108 near R.M. Moore ES STEM Academy and 75 miles an hour in the zones for Free Home ES and Knox ES STEM Academy.
“We think it will make our school zones safer,” Cushing said, noting there is no cost to CCSD for the initiative.
Chair Kyla Cromer, during the School Board Member announcements, voiced her opposition to two statewide issues. She said she supports State Superintendent of School Richard Woods’ request for a federal waiver from mandated testing this school year, and echoed his frustration that the federal government has indicated it may not issue a waiver.
“This year, more than ever, we need to remind out students that they’re not just data points, and our teachers are not just test scores,” she said, a position also firmly supported by Dr. Hightower.
She addressed the recent efforts to declare teachers statewide as “essential employees,” who should be exempt from requirements to quarantine when exposed to someone positive to COVID-19 and instead be expected to stay at work. Dr. Hightower said, while teachers are essential in their importance to their students and their community, he does not agree with the decision by some school systems to use that value as a reason to not quarantine them for the protection of their health and wellbeing and that of their students and colleagues.
“We don’t feel that it’s right or fair,” Dr. Hightower said of not quarantining teachers, noting that while School Nutrition workers already have been officially declared “essential workers” by the State, CCSD continues to send them home to quarantine.
He understands some school districts feel they need the “essential employee” designation because substitute teachers are more difficult to hire, but they can be recruited and trained, noting that CCSD has held four full workshops for new subs since the start of the school year, with a fifth session planned.
Even if the State makes the declaration, Dr. Hightower said, “we won’t put it into play.”
As part of its approval of the monthly personnel report, Dr. Hightower also announced two appointments to central office leadership.
Sheryl Puccio, who has 16 years of experience with CCSD and currently serves as administrative assistant for the Chief Operations Officer, will serve as Dr. Hightower’s executive administrative assistant, which is a position in his cabinet, beginning Dec. 1.
Toni Hedges, who has 10 years of experience in nutrition and currently serves in CCSD’s School Nutrition department as a facilitator overseeing initiatives including Farm to School, is advancing to serve as a coordinator for the department.
The School Board also:
- Accepted a $10,000 donation from the Blue Ridge Bar Association to support CCSD School Nutrition’s “pay it forward” fund that is used to pay off students’ unpaid breakfast or school lunch debts;
- Heard an update from School Board member Kelly Poole on the importance of every citizen completing their Census form by Sept. 30 to ensure CCSD receives the federal funding it should for programs including Special Education, the free and reduced-price school meal program, and the Title I program for schools that serve greater populations of students from lower income households;
- Heard an update on the opening of Mountain Education Charter High School, which is operating an evening school program for CCSD at the Etowah East campus that now is serving 100 students. A ribbon-cutting ceremony is planned for Sept. 30;
- Recognized CCSD High School Seniors Named 2021 National Merit Scholarship Semifinalists;
- Recognized CCSD's 2020 Volunteer of the Year Honorees;
- Recognized CCSD's Georgia PTA Reflections Winners;
- Approved a proclamation in honor of Constitution Week;
- Approved monthly financial reports;
- Approved the issuance of a Tax Anticipation Note (TAN) for $9.5 Million with a .49% interest rate offered by PNC, the best of six proposals presented;
- Approved the monthly update on Capital Outlay Projects;
- Approved the annual contract with Ninth District Opportunity, Inc.; and,
- Met in executive session to consider a student discipline matter and a real estate matter.
The next School Board meeting is Oct. 15, 2020