The candidates for Post 2 on the Hall County Board of Education representing South Hall have enough contrasts to make them distinct from one another.
But one of the most pressing issues facing school districts across the country has Republican Mark Pettitt and Democrat William Wallace sharing similar concerns.
“I think our school board has done a really good job in years past, and especially this year, in strengthening our school safety plans,” Pettitt, 25, said. “But I’m not sure in the world that we live in today that you can ever do enough.”
Wallace, 44, a former police officer in New York and Atlanta who now conducts security for a private school, said everything must be on the table for discussion when it comes to improving student safety and campus security.
“I would like to have an assessment done on the battery of schools to see what improvements could feasibly be done,” he added.
Proposals to improve school safety, however, are met with varying levels of confidence among the two candidates.
Since a deadly school shooting in Florida last February, Hall County has allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars for new security measures, including better surveillance technology, mental and behavioral health training for faculty and silent alarm systems throughout the district.
Wallace said he wants to attend to the concerns of parents and families of students, who are the biggest stakeholder of all.
Reaching out to them, as well as faculty, to better understand the needs of each school, each classroom and each student is the beginning of getting a firsthand look at the situation, Wallace said.
And whether it’s the need for active-shooter trainings or metal detectors in schools, Wallace is insistent that his ear is open to dialogue and debate, and that he’s willing to listen with respect and civility, even if he opposes the idea.
As a former law enforcement officer, Wallace warned of the unintended consequences that could come with having more firearms on campus, for example.
“That’s something that has been thrown around a lot,” Wallace said.
Intensive training and other checks would have to be put in place before moving in this direction, he added.
“I believe it is something that has to be carefully considered,” Wallace said.
Pettitt said he would like to look into equipping every school with electronic lockdowns on entryways and exits that could be controlled from a central administrative location.
More broadly, Pettitt said investing in mental health and behavioral counseling for students and their families is critical to addressing some of the systemic issues they may prompt violence in schools.
But Pettitt doesn’t think arming teachers is the answer, and metal detectors represent a threat level that he doesn’t believe the community has yet reached.
Meanwhile, officials with Hall County Schools continue to caution residents about the strains of funding public education as the number of local tax exemptions continues to grow.
When Schofield became superintendent 13 years ago, the county had about $450 million worth of property that was exempt from school taxes, or about 10 percent of the total tax digest.
Today, that figure has risen to about $1.3 billion, or almost 21 percent of the tax digest.
Wallace said that he’s concerned about the rhetoric from the board of education about funding needs, and limiting some exemptions or capping them at some level might be a remedy.
“It does seem like something that has been promoted,” Wallace said. “We do have to always make sure the school system is funded adequately.”
Pettitt said he thinks it would be wise to look at the number of agricultural and conservation exemptions granted in unincorporated Hall County, which is becoming less rural by the day.
“We have a very strong agricultural industry,” he said, adding that he’s only concerned about rooting out fraud rather than limiting qualifying exemptions.
But some of the concerns about how exemptions are impacting the budget might be “overblown,” Pettitt said, adding that senior citizens, for example, “have earned that exemption” and don’t place added financial burdens on the school district.
Pettitt is just seven years removed from high school, but that’s an advantage he sees for himself.
He narrowly lost the Post 2 race for school board four years ago. But he’s stayed involved in school board issues, served as a substitute teacher and has chaired the Hall County Library System Board of Trustees.
Pettitt said diversity in the student body was something he valued while attending Johnson High, and he believes closing the academic achievement gap for students is beginning to mitigate itself, particularly as first-generation Latino immigrants bear second-generation students.
Pettitt said he wants to develop a hyper-local focus when it comes to improving academic success for minorities.
“To help close that gap, I’m in favor of giving administration and teachers and principals the most power and discretion possible to focus individually on student needs,” he added.
Wallace said his mother was a school teacher, and he and his wife have college degrees. Education has always been an important part of his family.
“Unfortunately, not everyone in the community, especially minorities, have had that opportunity,” he said.
Partnerships with local organizations, such as the Boys & Girls Clubs, to provide mentorship and give voice to parents of struggling students is an important step to closing the achievement gap, Wallace said, which is sometimes a product of learning disabilities, socioeconomic backgrounds and language barriers.
“If these needs are met, a child will have better success,” Wallace added. “That would probably be my main focus.”
Pettitt said he also wants to prioritize work-study, career pathway and skills-based training to prepare students for the workforce of the future.
“I’m here because I want to serve,” Pettitt said. “I love Hall County and I want to make Hall County Schools the best they can be for my future children and the future for every child. I look forward to working hard for the people.”
Wallace said he wants to expand early college credit-earning programs to more students, partly as a way to limit their tuition and potential debt load as they pursue a bachelor’s degree.
Wallace has four children, three of whom are attending or have graduated college, and a youngest who attends a Hall County school.
“I just want to let families and students and teachers know they will have a board member there for them,” he said.
Experience: 15 years of law enforcement; six years with the New York City Police Department and nine with Atlanta Police Department. Currently a security officer at a private boarding school in Sandy Springs.
More info: www.votewilliamwallace.com
On the Issues
“As a school board member and former police officer, I would look to implement live video feeds, especially from elementary schools without school resource officers, to an officers’ mobile data terminal or another issued device such as an iPad, which would provide a tactical advantage. I’d also promote frequent dialogue between guidance counselors and students just to gauge how things are going along with any teacher concern.”
“In regards to discussions about lowering exemptions via working with Hall legislators, I believe some sitting officials may have alluded to this being a needed conversation down the road. However, I am a proponent of maintaining the current exemptions at this point in time, particularly those that seniors receive and, as it is now, residents may express concerns to the tax commissioner.”
Minority achievement gap
“I would connect with those families that have lower-performing children to determine the needed assistance. As there can be many reasons, ranging from language barriers to lacking financial resources, solutions would be put on the table — even those outside of the school itself such as the United Way of Hall County, an agency I’ve personally worked with, while also seeking involvement from those of a similar background that succeeded within the school system.”
“It will be a priority of mine to let the families, students, and teachers know that they have a board member that is there for them, that knows the sacrifices involved in raising children standing alongside them — in addition to being a fellow taxpayer. I’d also like to increase the involvement of high school students earning credits toward their college degree through early college, which is a program my son took advantage of while at Flowery Branch.
Residence: Flowery Branch
Experience: Chairman of the Hall County Library System Board of Trustees, former GAGOP State Committee Member, former member of the Hall County Citizen’s SPLOST Review Committee, and United Parcel Service Supervisor
More info: www.electpettitt.com
On the Issues
“School safety and security is the No. 1 priority of the Hall County Board of Education. Investing in school resource officers, improving electronic security features at each school and providing mental health counseling are goals of mine if elected.”
“Seniors have paid school taxes long enough and have earned an exemption. Efforts should be made to apply exemptions to only those who legally qualify and to protect seniors on fixed incomes and farmers from being taxed out of their homes/farms.”
Minority achievement gap
“Increased school choice and smaller class sizes will allow individual schools and teachers closest to each community help students succeed. Focusing on early literacy and parental involvement will also aid students who may struggle.”
“Not everyone needs a four-year college degree and we need to focus on teaching technical skills and trades. Georgia is suffering a severe skilled labor force shortage and we must work now to prepare students for the workforce.”