BoE candidates tackle issues

Wed, 07/09/2008 - 3:41pm
By: John Munford

Redistricting, out of county students among questions at Republican forum

The three incumbents and four challengers for seats on the Fayette County School Board answered questions Tuesday night at a candidate forum sponsored by the Fayette County Republican Party at The Gathering Place in Peachtree City.

The incumbents took turns answering questions about how the board picks up on out-of-county students. In the 2006-2007 school year, 207 students were removed after residency checks showed they lived out of county, said Post 2 board member Terri Smith.

Post 1 board member Janet Smola said that private investigators check up on residency issues, going inside the homes and opening the dresser drawers of what is supposed to be a child’s bedroom to make sure there are clothes there.

Residency checks are conducted on each student who has an affidavit of residency filed in lieu of using another proof of residency such as a house deed or utility bill, Smola noted.

In the last four years, the school system has saved more than $1.8 million by eliminating out-of-county students, Smith said.

Post 3 board member Marion Key said she knows the residency checks take place because she’s spoken to people who’ve had them done at their home. She said the school system was doing all it knew to do, but she was open to other ideas.

Smith said theories that the system turns a blind eye to out-of-county students to gain revenue are “ludicrous” because the system doesn’t make money based on the enrollment.

Smola said that District Attorney Scott Ballard has been the first DA to take on these cases. She added that the system is considering a new system to track the license plates of parents who drop off their children, which would involve parents providing that information each year so the system can root out complaints about children dropped off from vehicles with out of county license plates.

Right now, Smola said, the school system has no way to check tags, a process that can only be done by law enforcement.

Post 3 challenger Carol Jensen-Linton said she thinks the system should conduct a re-check during the school year to account for parents who rented an apartment and then abandoned it later just to establish residency for the school year.

Post 3 challenger Mark Aasen said the residency checks “are a step in the right direction” but he worried about how a computer could be used to doctor a person’s utility bill.

The candidates also took on the redistricting process. Post 1 challenger David Houston said he wants the system to be more flexible in redistricting, by spreading the process out over several years and also allowing fourth and fifth graders to be “grandfathered” at their current schools.

Houston said his children have had to change schools multiple times thanks to redistricting, which he didn’t think was right.

Post 3 challenger Mary Kay Bacallao said she wanted to improve the quality of instruction at all Fayette schools so parents won’t want to stay at one particular school over another.

Aasen said he wants the district to use better demographic data in redistricting.

Smola noted that the county has just eight trailers being used for normal classrooms in elementary schools in the county, and those eight won’t be used that way anymore once the Tillman Elementary School opens in 2009. Because it costs about $5,000 to move each trailer, the system has left them at their respective schools for other uses such as storage and office space for coaches, Smola said.

Houston said he’d like to see the board sell 50 of its 100 trailers, for example, but Bacallao disagreed, saying the schools wouldn’t likely recoup anywhere near the money they paid for them. Plus, she said, “who knows what the future is going to bring.”

Jensen-Linton said one of the difficulties with trailers is they can’t be occupied in bad weather. She also said using trailers to have more children enrolled at schools puts a strain on the cafeteria and other services such as the media center because they weren’t sized to handle the additional students.

Smola said the school board got input from the Atlanta Regional Commission on its demographics used to configure the new elementary school district boundaries. The board also did a transportation analysis and looked at data such as birth rates and both subdivisions that have been approved and those which already have their licenses.

The candidates also took sides on whether to start the school year later. Several candidates said that doing so would force the high schools to have exams after the Christmas holiday, and it also would keep students from enrolling in summer school at college, doing the same for teachers furthering their college education, several candidates noted.

Aasen said he favored cutting the number of days off so there aren’t as many breaks in the school year to facilitate starting school later in the year.

Key said there are several ways the school system can adapt to having lower revenues, such as using a hiring freeze for all personnel except teachers due to the need to meet student teacher ratios, and also eliminating all out-of-state travel. She also advocated the need to re-evaluate all programs offered by the school system to determine which are cost effective and which aren’t.

Key also said there have been some departments in the system which have doubled or tripled in size of personnel in the last ten years, and those should be evaluated for personnel cuts.

Smith was the only candidate who responded when the panel asked if any candidate had any ties to developers. She said her husband has done some residential development along with other people though he mostly focuses on commercial development.

Smola said her greatest concern for the system was the need to improving the system’s technology offerings.

Jensen-Linton said she wants to focus on technology and also on offering foreign languages at the elementary school level, even if that means offering those classes after school and perhaps on weekends by partnering with a local business.

Aasen said he hopes to bring an outsider’s viewpoint to the board.

Bacallao said she wants to create more training opportunities for teachers.

Houston said the board has serious budget concerns in future years and the last thing he would do is raise taxes “for any reason.” Instead the board should work with the money it currently receives, Houston indicated.

Jensen-Linton said one of her priorities is to improve the nutrition and wellness programs at Fayette schools.

The candidates were also asked why they should be elected or re-elected:
— Smola noted that since she took office the system has corrected facility inequities and also dealt with budget cuts totaling $21 million.
— Smith said she has made relationships with other agencies outside of Fayette County at the state and federal level that have helped the county
— Key noted that she often visits schools, though she takes flak for it, because she wants to see how her decisions affect the classroom.
— Houston said he wanted to put his business skills to the system’s use and also focus on improving the redistricting process.
— Bacallao said she wants to bring her experience from visiting a number of school districts across the country and help Fayette County become the top school system in the nation.
— Aasen said he wants to bring his leadership skills to the board and look at best practices from other excellent school systems across the country to see how Fayette can improve.
— Jensen-Linton said she’s a good listener and communicator and knows how to be a team player. She also said she wanted to improve Fayette’s schools that are “struggling more than the others” to bring all schools up to a “level playing field.”

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