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Tax debate at core of Hall school board runoff

Sloan, Pettitt disagree over what constitutes a tax hike in Post 2 race

POSTED: July 20, 2014 12:08 a.m.
NAT GURLEY/The Times

Mark Pettitt, candidate for Hall County School Board Post 2, at an education forum in April hosted by the Lanier Tea Party Patriots at Spout Springs Library.

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Brian Sloan and Mark Pettitt have a lot in common: Both are graduates of Johnson High School, both have a passion for education, and both are Republicans in favor of small government.

But their views are polar opposites where it comes to the Hall County School Board’s stewardship of taxpayer funds.

“There comes a point where you can’t raise taxes any more,” Pettitt said Thursday in an interview.

“There comes a point where you have cut to the bone and there’s nowhere left to cut,” Sloan said a few hours later in a separate interview.

The two face off Tuesday in a runoff for the Post 2 school board position.

After provisional ballots were counted in the primary, incumbent Sloan came away with what he called “the infamous 49.9 percent” of the vote. He was just two votes shy of avoiding a runoff, and Pettitt was only seven votes ahead of the third primary candidate, Traci McBride.

By law, a primary election must proceed to a runoff whenever no single candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote plus one.

Since the primary, Pettitt has concentrated his efforts in a door-to-door campaign, spreading his message of less spending and lower taxes, and reminding voters of a no-tax pledge he and Sloan both signed in March.

Pettitt says Sloan violated the pledge when he voted in June to accept the budget for the upcoming school year. Sloan disagrees, and their contention centers on different interpretations of what it means to raise taxes.

Pettitt is looking at the dollar amount of taxes collected, which will go up after a reassessment raised assessed property values; Sloan is looking at the tax rate levied by the school district, which was lowered from 19.25 to 18.9 mills.

One mill is equal to $1 for each $1,000 in property value, which is assessed at 40 percent in the county. The lower millage rate accounts for a 4.22 percent increase in school property tax collection due to the 6.58 percent increase in assessed property values.

Sloan said the district has endured $100 million in cuts in the last five years, including $4.9 million from reduced property taxes and significant reductions in funding from the state.

“This year we were fortunate enough to be able to lower the millage rate,” Sloan said. “I promised that I would not vote to raise millage rates and I kept that promise.”

Pettitt, a political science major at the University of North Georgia and the owner of a small marketing business, said lowering the millage rate was not enough to fulfill the no-tax pledge.

“He approved a 5 percent tax increase,” Pettitt said. “In order to not be a tax increase they would have to legally roll back the millage rate. ... It is encroaching the state constitutional maximum of 20 mills. It’s too close for comfort for me.”

Sloan, who is worship pastor at Chestnut Mountain Church and has served on the school board since 2007, said Pettitt is politicizing a campaign that should be focused on education.

“This is about the students of Hall County,” he said. “It’s about student safety. It’s about seeing our students succeed. It’s about education that leads to economic growth in Hall County.”

Both candidates say they think the school system is doing a great job of educating its students already, but feel there’s always room for improvement.

For Pettitt, those improvements include cuts to spending, greater transparency and a greater emphasis on vocational education.

Pettitt says while he wants to make cuts to the overall budget, he does not want to make any cuts to instruction.

“Our teachers have been cut too much in recent years,” he said. “It’s not cutting budgets at the school level, it’s streamlining support services that will maximize savings.”

Pettitt said he wants the district to hire consultants who have a proven track record of reducing school budgets while at the same time improving test scores, and he also wants to look for ways to make cuts at the facilities level.

Pettitt said his first goal, however, will not be about budgets, but transparency.

“I’m a big proponent of promoting accountability and transparency,” he said. “My first goal is to get the Hall County School Board (meetings) televised on TV 18,” the local government television channel recently moved to channel 180 on the Charter cable system.

He said he also has a passion for career and technical education. “We need to lessen the emphasis that every high school student needs to go to a four-year college when they can be just as successful by going to a technical college,” he said.

Pettitt said he wants to maintain the system’s current college prep programs.

Sloan said he wants to focus on strengthening the improvements the school system has made under Superintendent Will Schofield. In particular, he wants to expand the charter school and school of choice options. Twenty-three of the district’s 33 schools are charter schools or offer programs of choice. Sloan said he wants to see that expand to all 33 schools.

“We have determined to make our system a system of choice,” he said, adding a decade ago there were no schools of choice in the system.

Sloan said he also wants the board and administration to continue to communicate with teachers and others at the school level and remain open to ideas brought to them by teachers.

In addition, Sloan said he has a passion for school safety, and that during his tenure he has helped prevent the reduction of school resource officers.

He said he wants the district to continue to look for creative ways to save money, and said it recently saved a large amount of money by using alternative fuels for buses.

“We’re in the middle of several wonderful things,” he said. “It’s not a matter of coming in with a plate full of brand new ideas; it’s a matter of continuing with these ideas.”



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