With the school year halfway through, The Augusta Chronicle asked Richmond County Board of Education members to grade how well the district performed in five critical areas using an A through F report card.
Below are the responses from board members Jimmy Atkins, Venus Cain, Alex Howard, Helen Minchew, Jack Padgett and Patsy Scott. Frank Dolan refused to participate and hung up on a reporter stating, “I don’t want to grade myself.” Barbara Pulliam, Marion Barnes and Eloise Curtis did not return repeated phone messages and e-mails seeking comment.
An effective school board helps maintain a system’s vision, monitor data and is accountable for financial health of a district, according to The Center for Public Education. It is also responsible for keeping all members up-to-date with training and accreditation. Richmond County was designated a board of distinction by Georgia School Boards Association and holds a five-year accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
This year, the board passed a $235 million budget that made up for a $17 million revenue shortfall with $7 million in cuts and a $10 million use of reserve funds. The board was able to avoid mass layoffs through attrition and retirements, although state funding cuts have put huge financial pressure on the system. Currently, the district uses $16 million more in expenditures than it receives in revenue and has $24 million in reserve money, even though it takes $22 million to cover one month of operations. Despite the struggles, most board members said the school system has dealt with financial pressures wisely.
“This accreditation was awarded without any reservations and included several commendations as well as recommendations for continued system improvement,” Minchew said. “We do strive to obtain input from various sources in arriving at decisions but one in which we could improve.”
The 2011-12 school year began with thousands of complaints from parents about late buses and children who were never picked up for school.
Transportation Director Jimmie Wiley immediately began adjusting routes and trying to help schools adjust to the new shuttle system of transporting magnet students. However, the problem was worsened by several drivers calling in sick or not showing up for work on a daily basis. Two months into the school year, spokesman Lou Svehla said most of the buses were running on time because routes had been readjusted. In October, board members asked staff to start the bidding process of evaluating the cost of privatization.
“I would have given us an F at the beginning of the school year, but I do believe that our Transportation Department has made some improvements,” Atkins said. “I still want to explore the benefits of privatizing.”
The academic progress made by Richmond County students is an issue that is highly debated in the district.
Last year, the graduation rate increased by three percentage points to 80.7 percent. But according to 2010-11 Criterion Referenced Competency Test results released this year, only 25 of 55 schools made federal adequate yearly progress benchmarks, two fewer schools than the year before.
The results made Richmond County the worst performing system among 12 comparable districts in the state. When he took office last year, Superintendent Frank Roberson said he wanted 44 of the 55 schools to meet AYP benchmarks in the 2010-11 year. Some board members said last month they were concerned about how student achievement will be affected next year since Roberson had been absent from the school system for 10 months on medical leave. Roberson’s goal to expand magnet programs were also put on hold during his leave. However, as far as performance on standardized tests, the efficacy of these standards have been challenged by many states in the country because they mark schools as failing or passing without accounting for gradual progress.
This fall, Georgia became one of 11 states to apply for a waiver from certain No Child Left Behind benchmarks.
If granted, the state will implement a College and Career Ready Performance Index instead, which will evaluate schools on a wider range of indicators, rather than solely the scores on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.
“I always explain (No Child Left Behind) and try to help people understand just because a school didn’t make AYP doesn’t mean they didn’t make any process,” Cain said. “Look at where they were last year and compare the numbers. I use the 15 day assessments as a way for parents to see we are improving, but we have to work a bit harder at making the bar.”
For the past 15 years, schools in Richmond County have been renovated and replaced using the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax funds approved by voters. The 1-cent sales tax has paid for millions of dollars of changes in local buildings, some more than 60 years old. The school board recently approved a list of $130 million in projects for an upcoming SPLOST that will go before voters next year.
Board members have said renovations have drastically improved the facade of buildings and made better learning environments for children in schools. Despite the $130 million designated for schools in the upcoming SPLOST vote, the district’s construction consultant Jeff Baker said the system has more than $300 million in needs. The school district is also responsible for maintenance and cleanliness of the schools.
“When I visit schools in District 5, the front offices, classrooms, hallways and lunchrooms are clean and safe,” Scott said.
As elected officials, school board members are expected to communicate with the residents of their districts and their designated schools.
According to The Center for Public Education, effective school boards collaborate with staff and stakeholders to maintain district goals.
They also should pass information to the public and communicate amongst themselves.
Richmond County held one public forum this school year to address transportation issues and as a way for parents to talk
about other issues with district leaders, but only about 120 parents and bus drivers attended.
Before going on medical leave a month later, Superintendent Frank Roberson held the first ever State of Public Education forum to discuss school issues in Richmond County.
About 450 people attended, but another forum for 2012 has not been scheduled, according to Svehla.
“This is an area that we strive to maintain open communication between the staff and board members by sharing info with all board members when one board member requests a specific request for info,” Padgett said.
“I take every opportunity to speak to the public on any issue. I feel that each board member should be responsive to all the public in Richmond County and not just to district voters. Good communication allays most of the concerns of the public.”
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
ON THE BOARD GOVERNANCE
ATKINS: “I feel this is one area that the board has always done a good job.”
CAIN: “Yes, we are a board of distinction with GSBA.”
HOWARD: No Comment
MINCHEW: “Our district is a member of the Georgia School Boards Association through which we receive annual training in board governance as well as other pertinent areas such as code of ethics, establishing goals and objectives toward student achievement, superintendent evaluation and self-board evaluation. We currently are designed a Board of Distinction by GSBA through meeting certain criteria. In November 2007, our district received a five year District accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). This accreditation was awarded without any reservations and included several commendations as well as recommendations for continued system improvement. We do strive to obtain input from various sources in arriving at decisions but one in which we could improve.”
PADGETT: “This school board received the designation as a Distinguished Board three years ago and has maintained that level of boardmanship. Each board member has the right to express their opinion on all matters and the right to vote yes or no on all issues.”
SCOTT: “The positive feedback that I received from my constituents regarding the Town Hall Meeting held at A.R. Johnson Magnet School earlier this year by Dr. Roberson was a step in the right direction. Hopefully we will continue these types of meetings in the future to keep the public aware and maintain transparency in our decision-making. The Board needs to maintain as open line of communication with our stake holders.”
ATKINS: “I would have given us an F at the beginning of the school year, but I do believe that our Transportation Department has made some improvements. I still want to explore the benefits of privatizing.”
CAIN: “With the current demands and challenges, they manage to get the job done. Yes we have problems and will continue to have problems until we offer a higher starting salary and pay for training. We have some really GREAT employees and GREAT drivers at transportation and we need to fine tune some issues.”
HOWARD: “This one area that we continue to struggle in, however, we have improved a great deal since school began.”
MINCHEW: “For quite awhile now our transportation department has been overextended and under-resourced in trying to meet the demands placed upon it, considering the number of students to be transported as well as the geographic size of this county. They are tasked with not only providing service to the regular zoned schools daily schedules but also athletic and other after school activities, field trips, as well as magnet schools/programs whose students come from all parts of the county. High daily absentee rate among drivers and difficulty in finding qualified drivers are factors in that this causes other drivers to have to run double routes causing delays in timely arrivals as well as stress. We are also challenged by budget constraints. One factor which has assisted lately was the approval to use SPLOST (one cent special tax for education) funds for the purchase of school buses which aids in purchasing new buses. The transportation department does review and try to make adjustments to times and scheduling as problems are brought to their attention.”
PADGETT: “The transportation system stills needs improvement. More direct planning, better communication, more discipline from the students and drivers, and more equipment is needed. I expect more evaluation as we add technology.”
SCOTT: “Our children are our most precious commodities. I am happy to report that our students arrive to and from school safely each day. However, I believe that the transportation of our children is a work in progress. As a Board member and previous parent of school age children who rode the bus daily to school, it is a priority of mine to ensure our students arrive to school safely and on time. I see the need for mass communication training among the Transportation Department. Everyone should feel as though they are a vital part of this department and should be each treated and respected accordingly. Everyone should understand that the bus driver’s role is important. Bus drivers have the first contact with our children and that contact has to be positive in order to set the pace for exceptional learning on any given day. I have not received any calls in the last few months about the lateness of school bus arrivals. I continue to promote the need for all buses to be air-conditioned and safe. This addition is especially warranted during the spring and summer months for health and safety reasons. In addition, as we focus on bus safety, I will continue to advocate for school bus monitors to provide the “extra eye” that is needed to supervise students during transportation.”
ATKINS: “I believe that we are letting the children of Richmond County down if we do not have 100 percent of our schools making AYP and a graduation rate of at least 95 percent.”
CAIN: “I always explain (No Child Left Behind) and try to help people understand just because a school didn’t make AYP doesn’t mean they didn’t make any process. Look at where they were last year and compare the numbers. I use the 15 day assessments as a way for parents to see we are improving, but we have to work a bit harder at making the bar.”
HOWARD: “While we did not make AYP, this responsibility relies on both the parents and the school system. This grade reflects that.”
MINCHEW: “With AYP through the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, this rating is based on academic assessments in Math, and Reading/Language Arts with test participation and graduation rates included for high schools. For middle and elementary, CRCT test scores in Math and Reading/Language Arts along with test participation and attendance rates are used. 100 percent of the yearly objective goal needs to be met. It does not take into account progress which has been made toward meeting the criteria being measured. Last school year the district as a whole met 88.9 percent of these measures, with some individual schools coming as close to 94% to achieving these measures. Therefore, the district is making progress toward improving student achievement. Schools are doing more toward bringing all groups of students up in achievement such as offering before and after school tutoring, Saturday classes, and using student data to direct instruction. Partnerships with other community organizations are also utilized. However, in comparison with other systems with similar characteristics as ours, we are showing a lesser percentage of our schools meeting the objective goals for AYP. There is also a need for more focus on SAT/ACT scores. Race to the Top funding as well as School Improvement and other grants offer budgetary assistance at this time toward our desire to continue improvement in student achievement.”
PADGETT: “CRT shows some improvement but more needs to be done for low performing students. I very much prefer the tools that will be used when we receive the waiver from No Child Left Behind where progress is noted and you are not listed as failing if you show sufficient progress. We need to celebrate our progress and have a plan to move ‘all students’ forward in the ability to process information and not to just pass a test.”
SCOTT: “As I visit classrooms, I observe teachers teaching and students engaged and excited about learning. In most schools, teachers are going beyond the call of duty, arriving early and staying late, assisting students to help make progress with no additional compensation. For this extra commitment, I want to say thank you to our educators. I am glad that our focus is to ensure every student is college and career ready
I believe tests are important and want ALL schools in Richmond County to make AYP; however, we need to educate the whole child. We need to make sure our children are excelling in reading, math, science, history, social studies, the arts, penmanship, physical education and other vital subjects to ensure our students graduate and are ready to compete in the global society.”
ATKINS: “SPLOST dollars have been our greatest asset when it comes to maintaining our facilities, but we do have room for improvement.”
CAIN: “We have improved all our schools and they are maintained. If you looked back at the ’80s and ’90s most if not all our schools were in pretty bad shape. We now have some really nice and updated schools.”
HOWARD: “The SPLOST has helped us here in this economy as well as Benton Starks, who does a great job for the system.”
MINCHEW: “Since the first SPLOST was approved many years ago, our facilities have shown considerable improvement due to the availability of these funds to build facilities, provide numerous renovations and repairs to existing ones, and eliminate the need for portable classrooms. This continues to this day as current projects under the present SPLOST are being completed and additional projects for the next SPLOST will be presented to the public shortly for their approval at the time of the March 2012 presidential primary. There still exist several unusable structures which we have boarded and continue to monitor and work toward a solution for disposing of these. Regular maintenance of our buildings and grounds continues to improve by our Maintenance Department constantly monitoring and adjusting within the present budget challenges.”
PADGETT: “The advances we have made and continue to make with E-Splost funding is outstanding and one of the brightest spots in our system. Though we still struggle with cuts in our maintenance department, we are making smart decisions about equipment and certainly the cleaning materials we use for a safer environment.”
SCOTT: “Schools in District 5 have maintained a clean and safe learning environment for our students. For example, at one school in the district, there is a welcoming atmosphere as soon as you walk in the door. The aroma in the air is very refreshing to visitors. When I visit schools in District 5, the front offices, classrooms, hallways and lunchrooms are clean and safe. I want to thank the custodial staff for being professionals and taking pride in carrying out their duties. Additionally, work orders are being prioritized and processed for repairs in an orderly and timely fashion based on high demand from the Maintenance Department.”
ATKINS: “I believe that we as board members could do a much better job of communication with each other. I feel that the school system does a good job with being transparent, but again we have room for improvement. I cannot speak for the other board members, but I have always made myself available to address the concerns of the parents, students and employees of the Richmond County School System, because I know that I have been elected to be the voice of the citizens of district 8.”
CAIN: “We communicate well with each other. I attend 4th district community meetings, neighborhood meeting, I always make myself available to speak when asked. I hear the parents where ever I go! Nail shop, shopping, dinner, church, no matter where I’m at someone will stop me.”
HOWARD: “This is a reflection on myself as Board President. I feel that I have kept my fellow Board Members involved when issues do arise. I also have an open door policy with the public, and I returned all calls when I receive them.”
MINCHEW: “With our district Web site, school Web sites, E-Board and other links for information as well as a call system from schools to parents and parent portal component in which parents can access their student’s progress, our communication has greatly advanced in recent years. However, there are still snags along the way and improvements still needed. Board members communicate with each other via e-mail or phone calls. They also attend various neighborhood and community meetings in order to give information and receive input and bring back to full Board. However, this continues to be an area where many in the public feel additional improvement needs to be made.”
PADGETT: “This is an area that we strive to maintain open communication between the staff and board members by sharing info with all board members when one board member requests a specific request for info. I take every opportunity to speak to the public on any issue. I feel that each board member should be responsive to all the public in Richmond County and not just to district voters. Good communication allays most of the concerns of the public. Openness and honesty is a vital part of public service.”
SCOTT: “Overall communication among the Board Members and the public could be improved. I believe in transparency. The public would be more cooperative if we helped them to better understand various issues. I have partnered with State Representative Quincy Murphy and County Commissioner Bill Lockett to provide Quarterly Breakfast Meetings with constituents from District 5. During meetings, I provide an overview of important happenings in each school in District 5. These meetings have been informative, well attended and well received. I wish to share my community involvement with schools in District 5.”
– Compiled by Tracey McManus, staff writer