School board Vice Chairwoman Janet Read faced off against certified public accountant Danny Dukes, who also serves on Cherokee Charter Academy’s Local Governing Council and on the board of the Georgia Charter Educational Foundation.
Both candidates discussed the present climate of change, especially in school choice, and their view as to how to lead the school board forward.
Read said she was proud of the direction of the Cherokee Academies initiative, which will open four science, technology, engineering and math academies and two fine arts academies within existing district schools.
“I do think that is a wonderful choice and gives students another opportunity to excel at an earlier age,” Read said.
Dukes said he is also in favor of the initiative, but said he found it “very interesting” the Academies would “pop up” right after a charter school came to the community.
“That was ironic, at best,” Dukes said. “But at least competition did bring more choice into Cherokee schools and that’s a good thing.”
In going door-to-door, he said he’s heard from several middle school and elementary school parents that they don’t know about the Academies.
“I think the implementation might have been lacking because there are several parents out there who said they didn’t know if it was worth uprooting their kid’s education to go to an academy they didn’t really understand,” Dukes said.
Read said there are no middle school Academies yet, and that was likely the reason why middle school parents had not heard about the initiative.
“We just have an elementary level,” Read said. “Those are planned.”
Additionally, Dukes said he hopes to bring change to the school board by reducing administrative and transportation costs and will bring his financial skill set to re-examine the budget.
“For a half a billion dollars, we can do better and we need to do better,” Dukes said. “So that’s why I put my emphasis of rearranging funds (and) putting more funds in the classroom. The first thing I’ll do is remove teacher furloughs.”
When asked where in the school system’s budget he would cut to rid the district of the eight planned furlough days, Dukes said he would look to Forsyth County for answers.
“If we look to the east, we see Forsyth County,” he said. “On total expenditures and total (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax), they educate their kids $487 less per student.”
Dukes said if the district mimicked Forsyth’s plan, they would have a savings of $18.9 million.
“What we’re saying is we can’t do as good as Forsyth County in per student expenditures,” Dukes said. “I don’t think so. I’ll go over there and ask them how they do it. Then the next time they’ll be over here asking us what we do, because we’ll be better.”
Read said Dukes’ evaluation of Forsyth County School District was not comparable to Cherokee.
“They have only 60 percent of the land that we have, so they don’t have the transportation costs,” Read said. “They are also one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, so that’s another thing we need to consider because they have a much bigger tax base and millions more in tax dollars than we do.”
Dukes said he didn’t reference anything about income in his original statement.
“It’s not an income problem, it’s a spending problem,” Dukes said. “It has nothing to do with the rich people over in Forsyth County, it has to do with how you spend the money you have.”
According to Forsyth County School District’s report card from the Government Office of Student Achievement, a factor in Cherokee’s higher operational costs than Forsyth could be attributed to several factors, including the district having more school sites — 42 compared to Forsyth’s 35 — and roughly the same number of students.
In addition, the report said Cherokee has almost 2,000 more students qualified as Early Intervention Program students, as well as over 2,000 more remedial students to educate. Forsyth did not report having any remedial students in the sixth through 12th grades. Both of these categories of students are typically more expensive to educate because of their increased needs.
Additionally, the report card states Forsyth has lost $14.5 million in property tax revenue in the last five years, while Cherokee has lost $30 million. Forsyth will also take in $10 million more in property taxes for the next school year than CCSD, even with a millage rate that is 3 mills lower than Cherokee’s, according to the report card.
Another major budget issue both candidates addressed was the eight furlough days scheduled for the 20012-13 school year.
Read said every furlough day planned saves $1.1 million, totaling $8.8 million in savings for the eight furlough days this year.
“If we cut every single person in the front office staff, that would be a $4.4 million savings,” Read said. “Had we not raised the property tax one mill two years ago, it would be 14 furlough days. We have cut $121 million out of the budget since the 08-09 school year and we’re actually operating at 2006 tax levels and we also are educating 5,000 more students.
“It would be wonderful to get rid of furlough days, but then it really needs to be a choice,” Read said.
Read said the choice would amount to getting rid of busing students, but that it would likely gridlock the county. She said they could also eliminate jobs for half of district employed teachers and get waivers for class sizes, too.
“When you have 45 students in your class and you’re a teacher, you’d probably wish you had a furlough day,” Read said. “We are continually looking at the budget, not only during the budget processing time, but year round in ways that we can save money. It’s just going to be hard to find $8.8 million when we’ve already cut $121 million.”
Many critics of the local school system have questioned its administrative budget, including Dukes, who said administration and transportation are two areas that should be cut, but Read said there are currently about 11 vacant administrative positions.
“They’ve been open for a while and they’re not counted and the salaries aren’t included in our budget,” Read said.
Read quoted a study done by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that ranked the school district as having the ninth-lowest administrative costs for all state school systems.
“I do not think we are top-heavy,” she said. “We’re doing the same amount of work with less people.”
Dukes was then asked about the status of Cherokee Charter Academy’s budget and its reported $1.3 million deficit in March.
“Essentially, we had a budget shortfall in March mostly because we anticipated 995 children to be in school all year long,” Dukes said. “We fell short of that all year and we dropped to around 821/835 and floated around (there) all year long.”
Dukes said the other major shortfall was from not receiving funds from the state in relation to the state’s Early Intervention Program.
“We’re actually about 50 percent EIP services in that school and that was hard for the (state) Board of Education to believe so we had to prove it to them,” Dukes said. “I don’t know for sure we’ve received those funds, but I’m working and within the next week I’ll find out for sure.”
According to information from CCSD, the net makeup of Cherokee Charter Academy’s student population who withdrew from the district includes 679 students, with only 64 of whom qualifying under the EIP program or 9.4 percent. Of those withdrawn from the district and now attending the charter school, 464, or 68 percent, were classified as regular education students.
At the last Local Governing Council meeting in June, CCA reported having 821 students enrolled by the end of the year.
Read said she has not seen the charter school’s budget available for view on its website.
“Are (your budgets) transparent and available online so those parents can see for themselves?” Read asked.
“As far as I know, the budget’s online,” Dukes said. “It’s on the website, the Charter Schools USA site.”
Read said she would check.
In regard to his involvement with the charter school, Dukes said he has already tendered his resignation from the two boards he serves on, but he only plans to resign if he wins the race.
When asked how he would keep CCSD as one of the “best school districts in the state,” Dukes refuted that description.
“I might take exception to it being one of the best in the state,” Dukes said. “The graduation rate is not one of the best in the state, it’s not even in the 20th percentile.”
Read said Dukes’ facts were misleading.
“The actual graduation rate which you’re talking about is for those folks who graduate in four years plus one summer,” Read said.
She added that according to those figures, students who take extra time like many students at Polaris Evening School and other supplemental educational programs do not count.
“It’s not the reverse,” Read said. “If the graduation rate is 75 percent, that does not mean the drop out rate is 25 percent. It means 75 percent graduate in four years and one summer.”
Dukes said his statistics come from the state education department, but made an incorrect assumption according to Georgia Department of Education guidelines.
“The inverse of that (rate) are students that don’t get a diploma,” Dukes said. “And that is 9,500 and something students that didn’t get a diploma and that’s horrible.”
According to the state department’s FAQ sheet regarding the graduation rate, students who don’t graduate within the four-year window are not considered dropouts but are not counted in the graduation rate. Also, students who drop out of school and receive a GED certificate are not considered high school graduates and are not considered.