What changes or improvements do you want to see in Whitfield County Schools? How will you implement those changes?
Rodney Lock: We need effective leadership from our superintendent and his/her staff if we are to be a great school system. This can not be achieved with the intimidation methods we have had the past five years. Principals must be allowed to run their school without small town politics. Teachers and employees need to be supported, given direction, and boost their morale. When positions become available well qualified local people need (to) be given first opportunity. Our community needs to be listened to. Bring transparency to the school system and let everyone know what is happening with the school system before things have already been decided. Stop cutting teachers and courses that are impacting our children. Focus on what is necessary to educate our children, and prioritize everything around that. Stop wasteful spending. Car travel reimbursement alone was around $700,000 last year, with $800,000 spent on substitutes. Keep services in house. If a company can do the job and make a profit we should be able to do the job for at least 30 percent less. I have learned this in the operation of my own business. This is our hard earned tax dollars and it should be managed wisely. We need to build reserves for hard times like we are in now, not spend every dime we are blessed with.
I am just one vote out of five, but you will know where I stand. We need to elect servant leaders not self servant leaders. Our leaders need to have our children and taxpayers’ best interest at heart with every decision made. Be knowledgeable of what they are voting on, and carefully consider the consequences of each decision. If not, move to postpone the motion and gather knowledge about it before a vote is cast. We have one shot at educating our children and we can’t fall short even one year.
Bill Moore: One of the main things that I feel needs to be worked on is our school system climate. There should be an open and friendly atmosphere in all aspects of our system. From the superintendent and the central office staff all the way down to each individual administrator at every school. Decisions are being made that impact the education of every student in Whitfield County Schools, and sometimes the teaching staff is the last to know. We have many avenues to communicate and sometimes this isn’t happening. I think we could drastically improve our atmosphere if we had better communication. We need a superintendent that is accessible to school personnel and the general public. We need friendly, courteous central office staff, administrators, teachers and support staff. We also need this from our school board.
There are many ways that are already in place to communicate with the public if we use them efficiently. We have a Whitfield County Schools website, individual school websites, newsletters, phone calling system and letters sent home from individual teachers. Even in this great age of technology, some of our schools aren’t doing their best at keeping parents informed. I feel that with a little extra effort in communicating information to our parents we would alleviate a lot of problems. Many times, problems arise because of not being informed. Thus, updated websites, more frequent notes or newsletters, or using the phone calling system more could alleviate many problems before they arise.
Another area of concern for me is: Are all students in the Whitfield County Schools educational needs being met? We cannot meet the needs of our students unless we are using a variety of instructional methods. Using only one method of instruction cannot possibly meet the needs of each student. Each child has their own learning style, and we have to use a diversified approach in teaching the curriculum to ensure that all children are being challenged and learning to their highest potential. A little extra planning by our excellent staff can engage, challenge and motivate our students when they have work that is meaningful to them.
Jessica Swinford: I want to see our school system retaining effective educators and doing whatever it takes to make sure that our children receive a quality education. I also want to see teachers out of the classroom less and change in the way our professional learning is handled. While I believe it is important for teachers to continue their professional development, I believe it is more important for a child to have his or her teacher in the classroom and not a substitute. We should explore all opportunities available to implement this so our teachers can continue to make the difference in a child’s life inside the classroom.
I also want to see Whitfield County Schools as a place where the teachers are confident that their ideas and opinions can be heard without fear or intimidation. We trust our children in their care, and we should at least allow them the opportunity to voice any concern they may have as well as the positive things happening in our schools.
I feel that changes or improvements in our schools can be accomplished by communication with all those concerned, and I will advocate open communication so that our schools succeed in giving our children the best possible education.
What is your opinion of the school district’s affiliation with the Schlechty Center and the WOW (Working on the Work) philosophy?
Lock: We have spent several millions on WOW alone plus travel, lodging, meals and substitute teachers. Some teachers I have talked to have missed over 40 days of classroom instruction while attending WOW and leadership conferences. These teachers are professionals that have spent thousands of dollars and countless hours of time to get a teaching degree that is apparently not good enough for our current system. Professional development should be for all teachers and money should be spent wisely. Our system has chosen to follow a person’s program that less than one-fourth of 1 percent of other school districts have chosen to follow. Murray County almost doubled test scores working with North Georgia Regional Educational Service Agency (RESA) with very little cost to taxpayers. Whitfield County has spent millions on WOW and our test scores have barely moved. If you compare dollars spent vs. true test scores have we got our money’s worth from Schlechty Center?
Moore: My opinion of the Whitfield County Schools affiliation with the Schlechty Center and the WOW philosophy is that it has been overrated. We have gone overboard with excessive spending and excessive teacher absences from the classroom. We could have had more local training instead of week-long training sessions out of town. The WOW philosophy is not really anything new. If you are the kind of teacher that you need to be, you would be doing these things already. As oftentimes happens, new terminology has been used to make WOW seem like a new initiative.
I feel there should have been a variety of professional training opportunities available instead of mostly the WOW training.
Swinford: While I would agree that WOW in itself is not a bad educational tool, I do disagree with the manner and method that it has been implemented in our schools, not to mention the costs incurred by the taxpayers. Not only has this affiliation cost our county a substantial amount of money, it has removed our teachers from their classrooms and placed a substitute teacher in their place for many days of the school year. I believe we should allow the teachers the opportunity to freely speak about WOW and then move in a positive direction together so that we are moving forward in our educational instruction.
What sets you apart from your opponents?
Lock: I think running a business for 27 years in Whitfield County is a huge asset in my campaign for school board. I have had to meet budgets every year and a payroll each week. I have had hard times during my 27 years of business fighting ups and downs in the economy and change of conditions, but this has taught me to manage income wisely and build revenues for hard times. I am also an overburdened taxpayer that struggles each year to understand where our tax dollars go. I have a very good working relationship with customers and employees, because I am always willing to listen to new ideas from people at all levels of the industry. My motto has always been God gave me one mouth and two ears because you are supposed to listen twice as much as you talk.
The education of our children is not broken. We have very professional educators in our school system compassionate about our children. I have raised two children through the education system and working on the third. Added together this is 29 years my children have been in Whitfield County Schools. During this time I have met very dedicated teachers that have went above and beyond the job of educating my children. They have assisted in teaching them lifelong learning and have been an influence in their lives.
The problem is flagrant spending of our tax dollars. If this education system was a business it would have gone bankrupt a long time ago. Business can not raise prices to cover poor financial decisions. If they did customers would go elsewhere. Same with taxpayers, they will not support education when their money is wasted. We must have public support in education to make this a system that other districts would like to copy. We need to listen to our teachers and empower them with the tools to do the best job that they can.
Moore: I feel that my educational background definitely sets me apart from my opponents. I have 32 years of teaching experience in the Whitfield County school system. I have a better and clearer understanding of the educational process and how the state standards affect this process. My college experience included almost two years of business courses which will help with the financial aspect of this position. My highest degree is in educational leadership, which will be a great asset in knowing and understanding about school law, policymaking and decision-making concerning all aspects of our school system.
Swinford: I am a mother who has been actively involved in the school system. I have served four years on the Varnell School Council, two terms on the system’s redistricting committee and once on the Teacher of the Year Committee. I have a close relationship with many school teachers, school administrators and I am in touch with many community members. I am very passionate and committed to serving our children, teachers and community.
The school district cut $13.5 million from its budget for the upcoming school year and eliminated dozens of jobs. Also, school districts across the state continue to see state funding cuts year after year. What will you do to ensure taxpayer money is used as efficiently as possible?
Lock: When Mrs. Brochu arrived she put a 14-member cabinet in place to develop a shell around her and keep the public at a distance. Their salaries are all over $100,000 a year. A public relations position was added, because of past relationships she could monitor and have knowledge of anything going in the paper that was negative so she could control the media to some degree. A construction manager was hired to find a general contractor, handle construction documents, and complete a punch list at the end of capital projects. If the full plan is implemented they will leave with over $8 million of taxpayer’s money. This is not a necessary expense. This job was handled in house by two people before at a cost of around $150,000 a year. WOW was implemented by Brochu at a cost of millions during the past five years. Leadership Academy is another Schlechty Center course that takes principals and teachers away from our children two days a month for nine months at a high cost to taxpayers. Current administration also outsourced our custodial service at a cost of around $2 million education dollars, when it was done in house for less than $1 million. She hired an outside consultant to look at our system and find ways to operate it more efficiently. This was at a cost of around $100,000 when she could have asked people in the system and got a very good answer. Is all this necessary to educate our children? Is it in the best interest of our children and community? I think these issues should be looked at very closely, and we need to decide what is necessary for a quality education. We need to evaluate if we need to continue in this direction with education.
Moore: I will work extremely close with the Whitfield County Schools’ chief financial officer to have a clear and concise understanding of the budget. I would want to make sure that all monies are being spent appropriately and efficiently so that we can ensure a quality education is being given to all Whitfield County Schools’ students.
Swinford: I feel the best way to be accountable to the taxpayers is by being informed and educating myself before making a decision. I believe communication with other board members is vital so that we could work together to eliminate wasteful spending and making cost-effective decisions. We cannot ever forget that the needs of the children should always be our focus.
Under what conditions would you consider raising property taxes?
Lock: A property tax increase would be a last resort. I too am a taxpayer that pays thousands of dollars of my hard earned money and I expect every dollar to be spent wisely. Whitfield County’s unemployment rate is among the highest in the nation, and we are all struggling just to make ends meet. It would be insane to ask for more money after all that has happened to our community except as a last resort. We have a budget to meet and we must come up with innovative ways to meet it without any more harm to our children and taxpayers. We have very trusting taxpayers that have faith in our elected officials to be good stewards of their money. I have seen many ways to cut spending out of our budget from the outside looking in. Just imagine what could be found when I get elected. I would like to have an audit by our system CPA just to let the community know exactly where we stand with SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) and other taxes before the new board takes control.
Moore: The only way I would support raising property taxes is if we have tried everything else and there is nothing else to do. It would be a last resort after every other option is exhausted and unsuccessful.
Swinford: As I have said before, I would not be opposed to raising taxes if that was the only way to provide a quality education for our children, but I am not convinced that we have explored all avenues available. The fact remains that taxes are what fund our education, and if we cannot as a board make enough changes in the budget to give our children the best education possible, then raising taxes would be an option.
Voters in 2006 supported issuing more bonds and paying for more projects than the current five-year education SPLOST will collect. How will you address this situation?
Lock: SPLOST was voted in by trusting voters for around $100 million, which will be short by as much as $40 million if we continue with all the projects proposed. This was to renovate our technology and infrastructure. Money being spent needs to be done carefully and with proper oversight. It is true you can’t spend SPLOST dollars on anything other than items on the referendum such as construction and technology, but there is such a thing as inter departmental loans. We could loan our general fund money from SPLOST accounts to help us weather this storm. The main goal is educating our children and it should be prioritized above everything. Instead it has been used to spend us into a hole, and all the property owners have been thrown under the bus. Money spent for bad land deals when we had 85 acres prep with sewer and water at the Career Academy, $3 million spent on sewer, paying a construction manager a large percentage just to oversee a general contractor. These items alone could have saved at least $12.5 million on the new high school. At the next board meeting the board will sign an agreement with a construction manager for 8 percent to find a general contractor who can spend $30 million or more for rebuilding Eastbrook and a new gym for Career Academy. This may be needed, but should this be done when unemployment in our area is among the highest in the nation, teachers are being cut and foreclosures are at an astonishing rate? A new building is not going to help educate our children, but teachers will. If this is passed the new board will have high hurdles to clear, $40 million over on SPLOST, $5 million to start a new high school, and shortfalls from the state. Stop all spending that is not detrimental to our school system. Work on getting financial stability back to the system.
Moore: I think we need to check and see if there is any way to adjust the maturity of the bonds. The debt is there and has to be paid. If the maturity date can’t be adjusted, then we should see if it is possible to roll this debt over into another ESPLOST. If another ESPLOST isn’t available, we would have to look at other options to pay for this out of the general funds. Whatever plan is devised should have limited negative impact on employees and students (no cutting of teacher positions or instructional programs), and should not raise property taxes.
Swinford: I would be committed to making sure as a board we have explored all areas in which we could cut the expenditures. I think it is also important to educate the community on the financial situation and communicate what options would be available before making any decisions. Of course, as a last resort it may be required to raise property taxes to cover the shortfall.
Some people say the Board of Education should have waited to name a superintendent until after the new board members take office in January. Now, according to the current employment contract, the position can be reopened only by mutual consent, for cause, if the superintendent becomes disabled, or if the board is willing to issue up to 24 months of pay. Would you support reopening the superintendent position?
Lock: I will work closely to make sure that whomever the superintendent of Whitfield County Schools is, whether it remains the one put in place by the current school board or someone the new board feels is best suited for our system, that this person is a servant-leader; a leader which places the needs of the system above their own and empowers our teachers and staff to give of themselves as he/she gives to the system. The superintendent needs to lead by example and this person creates the culture by which our staff are validated and empowered to do the best job they can. This person creates the overall atmosphere of the system in which our children and our community’s future is dependent upon. If Danny Hayes takes (the) Whitfield County school system in a positive direction where our school system goes from good to great, I will support him. I would work diligently through communication with teachers, system personnel and taxpayers to know what is in our best interest. If asked a question you will get a straightforward answer without hesitation, and you will know how I voted behind closed doors or in public.
Moore: I would not favor reopening the superintendent position now unless there is justified cause. Unless there is justified cause, it would not be financially sound to reopen the position.
I do think it would have been wise to have named an interim superintendent until after the new board members are in office. With three new members on board, a different perspective will probably be in place.
Swinford: While I disagree with the board’s decision to name the superintendent before the new board members could take office, I want to allow the superintendent the opportunity to fulfill the needs of the students and teachers of Whitfield County. Of course, if the needs of our children, teachers and taxpayers are not met, then I would support reopening the position.