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Budget, Common Core top concerns for Hall school board post 2 candidates

POSTED: April 30, 2014 12:37 a.m.

The three candidates running for the post 2 seat on the Hall County Board of Education all share similar views on issues they agree are of importance — finances, board transparency and Common Core.

Incumbent Brian Sloan, 55, will face Mark Pettitt, 21, and Traci Lawson McBride, 51, in the May primary. All are Republicans.

Both Sloan and Pettitt listed the budget as being their top priority if elected.

“I think our high property tax rate is our biggest concern,” Pettitt said. “We’re at 19.25. It’s one of the highest tax rates in the state. It’s less than one point away from the state constitutional limit.”

The limit is 20 mills for school funding. There are other school systems in the state with a millage rate more than 19 for 2013, including Cherokee, Carroll, Butts, Douglas, Gordon, Gwinnett and Jackson counties.

Pettitt thinks the rate needs to drop to prepare for future budget needs.

“School system officials say we need to build a new school in the near future,” he said. “I’m concerned if the next (special purpose local option sales tax) fails, because they’re no longer slam dunks with people trusting government less and less, we’re not going to have any option but massive, massive bond debt to fund a new school building.”

Sloan’s concern is with the teachers, and the financial hits employees have taken since the economy dipped.
“I’m encouraged more because of the governor’s budget that allocated more to education,” Sloan said. “I will be pushing hard to get more funds back into teachers’ paychecks.”

Hall school district officials are in the process of developing the 2015 fiscal year budget. Sloan said he wants to be able to help give employees, specifically teachers, more financial incentives.

“Always, our top priority is the students and giving them the proper education,” he said. “With still trying to dig out of the bad economy, that has been perhaps our greatest challenge.”

McBride, a former English teacher at Johnson and West Hall high schools, and a former administrator at West Hall High, said she has a personal perspective on where expenses can be trimmed.

“Having been in the classroom and also in the schools as an administrator, I know of areas where duplication and/or waste has occurred,” she said. “I can provide and bring to the board, to say ‘Hey, here are some ways we can save money on the school side of things.’

“They’re probably not even aware of it, because they don’t have that unique perspective. While I believe that yes, we’ve done a lot of good cost-cutting measures, certainly they can do more.”

The huge buzzword right now, though, is Common Core and what the candidates call federal interference in the classrooms.

“I initially got in the race because of the Common Core standards,” McBride said. “I was an administrator when they were adopted and also was there at the school when the implementation process started with English and math.

“What we were told was that they were basically almost the same thing as the Georgia Performance Standards, and there were a few variations,” she said. “But since we had already begun our curriculum and instruction with standards-based items, it wasn’t going to be that much difference.”

Since McBride retired and conducted more research into the standards, she now believes President Barack Obama’s administration tying adoption of the standards to federal funding through the Race to the Top initiative is intrusive and worrisome, especially as part of adoption relies on a student data system.

“At the time, it wasn’t ever really explained,” she said. “OK, well, we’re going to keep all of this data on the school level. We knew all of the test scores were going to be put into this database.”

But said she thinks this collection of data could be compromised, or eventually used for marketing purposes.

Both Sloan and Pettitt said they are opposed to the standards as well, also calling it a form of federal intervention.

“Of course, I’m trying to make it well known in the forums and everywhere that I do oppose the Common Core curriculum,” Sloan said. “I oppose federal intervention in the local classrooms primarily, and Common Core is a very big step in the federal government trying to control the classrooms and what we teach.”

Sloan said he hasn’t heard many complaints about what’s being taught in classrooms, but he’s fearful of what may happen in the future.

“What we’re hearing, true or untrue, if it is true there will be some things that will definitely not go over well teaching in Hall County,” Sloan said. He said he couldn’t recall specific examples, but said he had been to meetings on the topic, as well as conducting research via Internet.

Pettitt said any federal intervention into education is a “recipe for disaster.”

“The local board does not have a lot of leeway with Common Core except we can build on Common Core and make our standards more rigorous,” he said. “We have to call on the state to withdraw us from Common Core, and I think they may be able to do that next year after the Race to the Top obligations end.”

Pettitt said he wants to see a return to “basic life skills” in classrooms, like penmanship in the elementary years and financial discussions in high school.

The candidates differ somewhat on the issue of board transparency, with McBride and Pettitt saying there isn’t enough access to documents.

Pettitt suggested airing the meetings on TV18, the Hall County government channel, or streaming meetings online.

“That way you can watch them as they’re happening,” he said. “I think we can always do better with transparency.”

He also said, and McBride agreed, that meeting minutes should be more readily available online.

“There needs to be easier means to facilitate the information to our citizens,” McBride said, adding meetings could be videotaped and archived.

“It seems to me that, rather than the board doing its job of oversight for the superintendent and the school system, it’s backwards,” she continued. “It’s more like, the school superintendent sort of says ‘Here’s what we’re doing, here are the ideas I have, here are the things the schools want to be a part of,’ and the board members basically, seemingly to me, agree.”

She said board members should “direct the ship” and come up with ideas about the direction of the district.
But Sloan said all board meetings are open, and all input is welcome.

“We want to be transparent. We have nothing to hide,” he said. “All the board meetings are open. We invite everyone to come.

“We get accused of rubber stamping (Superintendent) Will Schofield’s things, and people actually criticize us because we have too many unanimous votes and we don’t have enough split votes,” he continued. “But we handle those things legally, through legal channels, in our work sessions. There will be more discussion in work sessions, and our big topics we handle through our retreats and those are open to the public.”

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