Columbia County schools Superintendent Sandra Carraway’s first official day as the top school administrator was July 1, when she succeeded Charles Nagle, who retired at the end of the 2012-13 school year. The Augusta Chronicle spoke with Carraway last week about the challenges she faces and her plans for the coming year.
Q: What about this new job do you feel like you were least prepared for?
A: Having served as a deputy superintendent alongside (Charles) Nagle for the past six years, he was a wonderful mentor, allowing me to be exposed to every area of the business side of the school system.
But I guess the things that I didn’t experience were the interactions with the community and speaking with various groups. Also, the board meetings and working closely with the board on achieving their goals, and also maintaining the business side of the school system, those were new to me. As exposed as I was to most things, those weren’t things that I could do.
I just didn’t have any broad-based experience with all of that, but I will tell you that our community is so supportive of our schools and our school system it is really just an honor to serve in this role and to interface with our business partners and our church organizations because they recognize the value of a good education and they want us to be successful, almost as much as we want to be.
Q: The school system is facing funding reductions from the state and though property taxes will increase to offset some of that, you still have budget challenges. What are the effects?
A: It is very challenging. The most apparent results in the decrease in state funding have been larger class sizes. Our system is committed to having no more than three students above the state (mandated) size. It varies by class. For kindergarten, the maximum size from the state is 20, so for us it would be 23.
When you have larger classes you have fewer teachers. About 90 percent of our budget is to pay for personnel, so that is really the only way for us to save money. With 90 percent of your money going toward salaries, that 10 percent is for everything else – electricity, gasoline, building maintenance – so it is very demanding
We have cut our instruction monies in half. That certainly has been painful. But we are very thankful that our school system for the last several years has been able to not have furlough days because two-thirds of the school systems across this state are not offering their students 180 days of school.
And yet the expectations for performance are ever-increasing. I can say that our workforce, all of us recognize the limitations of larger classes and less money for instructional supplies. Really, the quality of an education is directly dependent on that teacher in the classroom.
With the coming of larger class sizes and us hiring fewer teachers, the number of candidates applying for a job has greatly increased for every position. So, we are able to hire the very best because the competition is so high.
Q: The number of students you serve continues to grow. You expect to be adding about 420 students this fall. How do you deal with that on tighter budgets?
A: We have grown by about 9,500 students in a 20-year period, but if you look at our work force over the past five years, instead of growing, we’ve shrunk.
I think it has helped us. We’ve really had to refine what we do and it has caused us to really look at every area. I will tell you just in the past three years we have created what we call an achievement period, which is an extra little block of time anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes, and during those times we provide remediation for students who aren’t performing to the level we think they should and enrichment for students who are higher achievers.
That has been critical to the success of our schools in every area, but is just asking a teacher or a school-level person to do more. Everything we do has been under a microscope to see how are we doing, how can we improve, how can we do more with less.
Q: At some point you can’t do more with less; what then?
A: We’ve talked about that every year. There is going to come a time of diminishing returns, but thankfully we have not seen that yet. Every year we have been able to maintain our budget and have a solid school year.
We are just thankful every year we meet budget. We give thanks, and then we start working toward that next challenge.
So we have been able to not just maintain and hold on, but if you look at our performance – our standardized tests – we have continued to improve. That’s going to be our goal, to continue down that same pathway. Hopefully, there will come a time when the state recovers enough to restore that much-needed funding.
Q: You’ve recently announced new Twitter and Facebook accounts for the school system. How will those be used?
A: For communication, for not only sharing all the good news types of events in our schools as they occur but also for improved communication. A lot of our families use Facebook as much as anything else, really more than e-mail. If, for example, we have inclement weather and need to put out a message for the opening, closing or late start of schools, we will use them for things like that. Also to inform parents of report card dates or progress report dates, teacher conference dates, anything new and important going on in the school system.
Q: Do you anticipate moving to electronic textbooks at some time?
A: Electronic textbooks are in our sights. The problem is that the cost for electronic textbooks has not gotten competitive. The second problem is that when you go digital you still have a particular number of students who either don’t have access or just have a preference for paper. But mostly it is providing equal access to students who may not have access to the Internet from home. So we have some challenges there. One of our initiatives for the coming year is “Bring Your Own Technology.”
It’s an initiative designed so that we can maximize what students already have to make our instructional programs stronger in that area.
Q: What benefits do you see for the schools with this?
A: In our high schools the level of engagement will increase exponentially. For students who have grown up in the digital age, to have to take out a notebook and a pencil or pen to take notes (is more difficult). For them to be able to use their smartphones instead, that alone will engage them in ways that a teacher standing before them with a book on a desk can’t.
It will take them into a new level of learning, the kind that they experience everywhere else except in school.
One of the security things we have to do is to have student access to our network, which means that our buildings have to go wireless and our network security, log-ons for students to access the networks, all that has to be put in place. Our goal is to have that in place in our high schools by January.