Held at the Holly Springs Community Center, Cherokee County Board of Education members present were Chair Janet Read, members Robert Wofford, Rob Usher, Patsy Jordan and Kelly Marlow.
Local delegation members in attendance were Rep. Calvin Hill (R-Canton), Rep. Mandi Ballinger (R-Canton), Rep. Michael Caldwell (R-Woostock) and state Sen. Brandon Beach (R-Alpharetta).
The focus of the meeting centered on the district’s board-approved 2013 Legislative Program, a copy of which Read said was provided to the delegation in December.
Read said the document is the basis for school board priorities moving forward and included reinstating statutorily-required Quality Basic Education funding.
It would eliminate state austerity budget cuts, develop a statewide strategy to combat increasing State Health Benefit Plan costs, earmark state funding for teacher incentive pay in STEM fields and institute a more fair determination of high school graduation rates.
The board’s first priority is to reinstate the 180-day school calendar, reduce class sizes and eliminate furlough days. To do this, the board requests all of its statutorily-required funds under the QBE formula.
Hill maintained that the money owed to the district does not exist and said the system is “fatally flawed.”
“Unfortunately, with the changes this year to the federal health care act, it’s going to take about $850 million we’re going to have to create somewhere just to be able to be whole from our bills that we have,” Hill said.
Hill said the only way to increase funding to Cherokee is to work toward building the state budget so Cherokee gets a “larger slice of the pie.” He also said the state has increased per student funding each year to an amount of $4,496.
However, in an email Friday, Superintendent Dr. Frank Petruzielo said the per pupil state funds for 2012 were actually $3,804.
“Mr. Hill pulled his data from the DOE website’s Revenue and Expenditures report, which shows total QBE earnings for each school district and the state,” Petruzielo said. “QBE earnings have indeed increased. However, since the state Legislature has not fully funded QBE and has in fact used austerity cuts in order to balance the state budget, it is not accurate to use figures for revenue that CCSD does not actually receive. Instead, one must review the state allotment sheets for the school district, which show not only the QBE earnings, but also the reductions made for Local Fair Share and austerity cuts.”
Wofford said the issue affects not just the local district, but the entire state.
“When we address this issue here, I don’t think we’re talking about just Cherokee County,” Wofford said. “I think Cobb County, Forsyth County, your other counties have the same problems we’re having with funding right now and I understand there’s not a dollar there and you can’t give pennies out to everybody, but we’ve cut and cut and cut to the point where we’ve cut the quality of education.”
Hill said he doesn’t believe QBE will ever be able to be fully funded by the state.
In response, Read asked whether there is a plan to fix it.
As a growing county, Hill said Cherokee would lose more money if any tweaks were made to the formula, as the smaller, more rural counties maintain more power in the state Legislature.
Usher said one of the big problems with QBE is it is based on property values and homeowners, and does not take any consideration of actual taxpayer head count.
“The system is geared to try to have you have more people in your county who receive than who can pay,” Usher said. “I understand the system was originally set up to help rural counties, and that’s OK… but these bigger counties that (have more rental properties) are taking advantage.”
Marlow said she would like to hear plans to bring more jobs to the county to bring in more local revenue.
Beach said he believes jobs are key to expanding the tax rolls. He said he spoke Wednesday with Gov. Nathan Deal about the idea of a statewide Opportunity Zone for a two-year period, which offers tax credits for job creation. The idea would amount to a $3,500 payroll tax credit, he said.
The state now operates under a tier system, which Beach said he feels forces companies to open where they are not interested in opening.
“If we want to get (businesses) to Georgia, we have to simplify the tax policy,” Beach said.
Beach said the state cannot cut its way to prosperity and the way to grow sales and revenue is through job creation.
“You don’t have to raise taxes, you have to create jobs. And to do that, you have to have a game plan,” Beach said. “I just think with all of the assets we have here with a great K-12, the SAT scores and so on we should be able to do that, but it’s going to have to be a team effort.”
Beach said he supports the Opportunity Zone idea because General Motors decided to invest $26 million in a facility located in a north Fulton Opportunity Zone, which he said will bring 1,000 jobs to area.
“That’s why I’m so high on this Opportunity Zone idea, because it’s an easy tax credit, it goes straight to bottom line and it helps that business and it’s pretty simple,” he said.
The one area where legislators expressed intentions to help is the statewide graduation rate, which school officials say paint the district in an unfavorable light and penalize special education students and those students who take more time to get their diploma.
“We know there are some kids that are not going to do it—even if they have their nose to the grindstone—they’re not going to do it in just four years,” Read said. “We want to make sure that they count.”
Hill also encouraged the board to provide recommendations outlining how the bill could potentially be written.
“I’m sure some of us or a combination would love to take that on,” Hill said.
The elected officials ended the meeting with a decision to plan an evening to visit Polaris Evening Program in an effort to acquaint the legislators with the challenging circumstances that some district students face in an effort to graduate.
Throughout the legislative session, Read said she hopes legislators feel they are able to use her as a point of contact whenever education-related bills are up for discussion or vote.
Beach said he appreciated the work of the local board and wants to continue an open line of communication to make the best decisions for education in Cherokee County.
“Education is the foundation of our community.” Beach said. ”Jobs, quality of life, low crime rate all go back to having good schools.”