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.”