Members of the Cherokee County legislative delegation and the Cherokee County School Board came together late last week to discuss the school board's 2013 legislative priorities as well as to discuss what the state's plans were to shore up education funding.
With the exception of Michael Geist, the entire school board attended last week's meeting with the delegation. Both State Rep. John Carson (R-Marietta) and State Sen. John Albers (R-Roswell), both of whom represent the southeastern corner of the county, also did not attend the meeting.
The priorities, which were approved by the board last month, are:
- Empower the School Board to: restore a 180-day school calendar for students; reduce class size; and, eliminate employee unpaid furlough days ...by ending State “austerity budget cuts” and allocating to the School District all locally-earned funding under the statutorily-required Quality Basic Education (QBE) Act formula.
- Develop and begin implementation of a statewide strategy for State Health Benefit Plan cost containment...rather than continuing to simply pass skyrocketing annual premium in- creases in this regard along to School Boards, teachers and other State employees.
- Earmark State funding for continuation of teacher pay for performance incentives and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) initiatives established through Georgia participation in Race To The Top…when Federal funding in this regard ends in September of 2014.
- Institute a fair and reasonable determination for high school graduation rates which factors in special education diplomas and the fact that it takes more than four years for some students to complete graduation requirements.
School board members asked members of the delegation if they would commit to ensuring each of the four points would be addressed during the 40-day 2013 legislative session.
State Rep. Calvin Hill (R-Hickory Flat) noted that the first priority is something the legislature as a whole would love to do, "but the money doesn't exist" for Cherokee to get the share its entitled to.
The QBE formula, which Hill described as "flawed," is the method in which the state uses to allocate funding for local school districts and Hill told school board members delegation "has no say" in how money is allocated to the district.
And with the federal Affordable Health Care Act, it will take around $850 million the state will have to "create" just to pay its bills, Hill noted.
Hill also stated the only way to increase state funding would be to increase the state's overall budget so the county would get more.
He also went on to say that the state has increased its per student funding to $4,496 each year.
Not so, according to numbers released on Friday by the Superintendent Dr. Frank Petruzielo.
The superintendent noted the per pupil state funds for 2012 were roughly $3,804.
Petruzielo said Hill pulled his numbers from the Georgia Department of Education's revenue and expenditures report, which in fact does show an increase in QBE "earnings."
"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 the Cherokee County School District does not actually receive," he said in a written statement.
He noted for a more accurate to review state allottment sheets for the district, which show QBE earnings as well as reductions made for state austerity cuts.
School Board member Robert Wofford noted the district is now at the point where they are having to choose between a rock and hard place when it comes to making cuts.
"We’ve cut and cut and cut to the point where we’ve cut the quality of education," he added.
Hill countered the point by noting the legislature has funded education in the state and that the real problem lies at the local level as Cherokee's property taxes have taken a nose dive in the last five yeas.
Education, he added, "has been the most protected" agency when it came to state budget cuts.
School Board member Rob Usher added that the QBE system is part of the problem, as the system takes into account those who pay property taxes rather than the entire population base.
He noted the larger counties that have more rental properties are able to take advantage of the QBE formula.
Board member Kelly Marlow also asked legislators what their plans were to help employers come to Cherokee to increase the tax base.
State Senator Brandon Beach (R-Alpharetta) said he's working on legislation that would create a temporary opportunity zone for the entire state for two years.
That, he said, would help "create a lot of jobs."
Created in 2004, an opportunity zone is a state designation that allows local governments to provide tax incentives for economic development and revitalization of pockets of poverty.
Benefits include eligibility for a $3,500 tax credit for each new job created, the use of job tax credits against 100 percent of income tax liability and withholding taxes, and the expansion of the definition of business enterprise to include businesses of any kind.
Cherokee County has two opportunity zones: one in the southwest corner of the county and one in its so-called "technology ridge" area.
The Technology Ridge area includes parcels west and south of the Interstate 575 interchange at Exit 20 along Old Highway 5, east of I-575 along old Highway 5 north to Ball Ground and the western side of I-575 around the Howell Bridge Road area.
Board members also asked legislators how the state could help local school districts contain the costs of its state health benefit plan.
Hill said the rising costs of health insurance is a "shared cost we are all getting hit with."
Board members also informed the delegation it would like to see the state contribute funding towards teacher pay for performance incentives and its Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) initiatives.
Both the STEM initiative and teacher performance pay were established through the federal Race To The Top program.
The district notes the current budget for STEM initiatives is $211,150 and told legislators the state has told the district it should expect to set aside next year for performance pay is over $900,000.
Read noted she and other board members would like the delegation to consider revamping graduation requirements.
The district wants the state to recognize students who may take the special education diploma track and take into account that it takes some students longer than four years to graduate from high school.
Currently, school districts' graduation rates only includes students who graduate in four years. Students who take longer to graduate and who may be on a special education diploma track are not factored into the rate.
Hill asked board members to submit recommendations on what should be changed, to which Read said she would.
State Rep. Michael Caldwell (R-Woodstock) noted students now are facing with the trend of having to set aside taking extracurricular classes in lieu of more rigorous academic credits they must have in order to graduate.
Last week's meeting ended on a conciliatory note.
However, Read asked the delegation to consider asking how legislation being considered under the Gold Dome would impact the Cherokee County School District "so we can let you know from real life experience" how it affects us."