Sen Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock) and Rep. Sean Jerguson (R-Holly Springs) met with local parents, PTA members and school board representatives at the Woodstock Public Library. The meeting was initiated by Hickory Flat PTA members Carol Taylor and Stacia Vyneman after the two sent an email to local representatives questioning state budget cuts for school funding.
On hand Sunday from the Cherokee County School District were spokeswoman Barbara Jacoby and Coordinator of Community Relations and Publications Carrie Budd. Kathy Thompson, a Hickory Flat parent and moderator of the meeting, said parents requested Jacoby’s and Budd’s presence to provide financial information from the district.
“This meeting came to place because there were parents that recognized there was a tremendous overcrowding of classrooms,” Thompson said. “I, along with other parents, saw the need to figure out a solution to help some of the burden that is placed on our teachers.”
She added that two weeks ago, parents from Hickory Flat started writing emails to local representatives stemming from their concerns over large class sizes and state funding cuts.
“Many responses from other representatives … accused us of deliberately distorting the facts, that we were misinformed and misled, that we were being hung out to dry,” Thompson said. “We actually got accused of hiding behind our skirts.”
Thompson said neither Jerguson nor Rogers sent such emails, but other email correspondence sent from Rep. Calvin Hill (R-Canton) and Rep. Charlice Byrd (R-Woodstock), neither of whom attended the meeting, gave rise to the concerns.
Thompson called the emails from delegation members hasty and “concerning.”
Rogers said he wanted to clarify the numbers addressed in the email by explaining the state’s Quality Basic Education funding formula for providing money to school districts.
“The impression is that the state is sending less money to the school districts,” Rogers said.
Rogers said in 2004, Georgia gave the Cherokee County School District slightly more than $100 million and in 2011, the district received $150 milion from the state. He added that per-student funding from 2004 to 2011 saw an 11 percent increase.
“The fact is, the money went up in total dollars and the money went up in per pupil spending and has been going up increasingly every year,” he said.
However, Jacoby presented the group with different numbers, saying state funding numbers from 2002 to 2012 are different — that between those years, state revenue for each student has decreased by 14 percent.
“It went from $3,619 per student to $3,110 per student,” Jacoby said.
Rogers said he used 2004 as a reference because that year’s budget was the first he worked on as an elected official. He added that no budget will ever be fully funded under the QBE formula because it is a “broken,” 27-year-old funding formula and produced copies of a bill he co-authored two years ago to create a new formula.
As for the current school budget, school board Vice Chairwoman Janet Read questioned the system now in place.
“We cannot wait until the money lands in our bank account to actually go ahead and figure out the budget,” she said. “If that formula is the key, then these numbers are right. We are losing money every time, based on the formula.”
Rogers said QBE is based on total input, and “just spits out numbers.”
“But then how are we supposed to figure our budgets?” Read said.
“That’s exactly what’s wrong with this,” Jerguson said. “That money doesn’t exist.”
Another heated disagreement involved the term “austerity cuts” used in the district’s 2012 Legislative Priorities brochure.
“What you’re talking about the amount that QBE says each one of the 180 school (districts) should receive,” Rogers said. “And the amount that they did receive is what you call an austerity cut.”
Jacoby said QBE is state law.
“So if state law says we should get ‘x’ amount of dollars and we really get ‘x’ amount of dollars minus $26 million, it’s a cut,” she said. “I think the parents called this meeting because they were told they were liars. That’s why we’re here to provide this information.”
Jerguson said the school system’s definition of a cut is “when it’s something that you should have but you don’t have.”
“Our definition of a cut is removing money — taking what you did have and pulling it back,” he said. “It’s two very different things.”
“Yes, the formula is the state law, but that formula doesn’t mean anything until you apply the amount of money going into it,” Rogers said.
Also, according to the 2012 Legislative Priorities brochure, the district’s 2011 five mill Local Fair Share totaled $39.1 million, which exceeds the state statutory 20 percent formula maximum for the third straight year — by $2.8 million for 2011-12 alone.
Neither Rogers nor Jerguson knew why the cap was exceeded. Jerguson said he would have an answer for parents by Thursday.
School board Chairman Mike Chapman then addressed the audience, first thanking the legislators for coming to the meeting and addressing the emails that led up to it.
“The vitriol that was in there was amazing,” he said. “And that’s all I’ll say.”
Chapman went on to say that as a business man, he knows formula funding isn’t a way to run a business.
“But how do you plan a budget when the number keeps getting worse and the enrollment keeps going up?” the schools chairman asked.
Chapman then referred to January’s teacher town hall meeting.
“I think the argument here is I didn’t hear one thing (at that meeting) for Cherokee County Schools,” he said. “I don’t hear it, the public doesn’t hear it. The perception is that you’re listening to a group of people (that is) a small minority.”
Rogers said that when he makes policy, he must cover all 180 school systems in the state and he has not had similar problems in Cobb County.
“In one county, I have not had a single issue,” he said, referring to Cobb County. “In my home county that I love dearly, you’re saying that there is a perception problem,” Rogers said. “I don’t do anything different.”
Chapman said the vitriol in the emails drove home the point that teachers are a “fringe group” rather than an important part of the constituency.
Lisa Marie Haygood, Georgia PTA membership chair and former Cherokee County PTA president, directed the legislators’ attention to the issue of Cherokee Charter Academy.
“Where is the enabling legislation to help us understand why you would choose to take away our tax dollars, lose control of it and we have no say?” Haygood said. “I feel like you guys are giving carte blanche to the state who has already shown they can’t manage the school system.”
Jerguson said he was “gravely concerned” with the enabling legislation and said Haygood was right in her concerns. He also took up other issues with House Bill 1162, including statewide teacher pay scales.
“This constitutional amendment is much more than charter schools,” Jerguson said.
Read furthered the point when she addressed the new Cherokee Academies that will provide school choice within the district.
“We are answering the call for choice,” she said. “Yet you continue to support the charter school bill. I’m taking that personally.”
Jerguson said he was “extremely happy” the district was moving in the direction of choice and the initiative has his full support.
“I’m taking to heart some of the things you’re telling me,” he said. “I’m concerned about lack of control when it comes to certain schools opening up in community.”
However, during a final round of questions, Jerguson said he has received more information to support HB 1162, but did agree to take some provisions from the meeting to talk with the bill’s author about amending it.
Also, neither legislator committed to not changing school board governance. Jerguson said the Blue Ribbon Committee, consisting of three citizens appointed by each local legislator, was “one piece of the entire process.”
“I think there probably needs to be a governance change in Cherokee County,” Jerguson said, noting he represents 52,800 people. “Is it realistic to expect a school board member or county commissioner to represent a quarter of a million people?”
Gary Parkes, Carmel Elementary School PTA president, said a change in governance is counterintuitive to the success of local elected officials throughout the recent past.