During the 1990s, Cherokee County was in the middle of its transformation from being primarily an agricultural community to becoming a bedroom and retirement community for Atlanta, following the building of I-575 through the heart of the county. The county school superintendent was then an elected position and the county school board found itself without the expertise to make the transition from a static school population to a rapidly growing school population and was on the verge of losing its accreditation. That issue created a huge firestorm.
Parents were angry. And they wanted the issue resolved, and struck the match that quickly grew into a huge political firestorm. Putting out this firestorm required the cooperative efforts of the county's elected leaders, business community and parents. The solution began with the naming of a blue ribbon committee made up of leading political and business leaders and parents. This committee quickly realized that changes were needed in the selection of the county school superintendent and in financing the construction of new schools and badly needed renovations of older school buildings.
These changes required changes in the governing laws. New laws were enacted that allowed the superintendent to be hired by the school board and to finance the needed expansion using a local 1 percent added tax. The Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for education was born to help expand the tax base, which was then being carried entirely by property owners. Public meetings were held and the changes were approved by the voters.
New school board members were elected and exercised their newly given authority and set out to hire an experienced school superintendent with the courage to make and implement the needed changes. The board found such a person in Dr. Frank Petruzielo, a highly qualified educator with a long list of credentials, a no-nonsense leader who had developed his leadership skills in the heat of controversy in some of the larger schools districts of the nation.
Small Cherokee could afford such a credentialed man because Dr. P., as he is commonly known, had retired from a large metropolitan school system to come to live near family in Cherokee County. And in my opinion, knowing I will take heat from my political friends, often Dr. P.'s political enemies, Dr. P. was a perfect choice by the board.
Dr. P., took a rural school system and transformed it into one of the top three schools systems in Georgia, and one of the finest school systems in the nation. When you consider how low Georgia is rated in national school comparisons, that is indeed an accomplishment worth talking about. Dr. P., as all great CEOs do, surrounded himself with a highly skilled staff and then developed a plan to meet the systems current and future growth needs and presented it to the community, via the school board, the blue ribbon panel and public meetings. That plan included support for the initial Ed-SPLOST, and the issuance of long-term bonds, which all corporations use (remember the county school system is a $400 million-plus business and largest employer in the county). The plan was first approved by the school board and the panel, and ultimately by the county voters when they approved the initial Ed-SPLOST and again when they approved its renewal. And I believe they will approve it again. It's the right thing to do. I voted twice for the Ed-SPLOST before and I will vote to renew it again.
Dr. P. has done the job he was hired to do, straighten out a school system in transition. In doing so, he has created political enemies, but that comes with the job. Neither Dr. P. nor the current school board created the current mini firestorm. It was created back when the county leaders decided they wanted to cash in, and they did, on some of the wealth being created by metro Atlanta's growth and lobbied for and obtained I-575, which brought growth, wealth, and change. This is America at its best, local communities solving local problems. Now it's time to renew Ed-SPLOST.
Donald Conkey is a retired agricultural economist in Woodstock.