BoE candidates quizzed on closings, 3-2 votes

Harvest Christian Community Center in Fayetteville was the setting for a forum for candidates running in two contested races on the Fayette County Board of Education. The forum covered a wealth of topics such as Fayette County School System finances, split votes by the school board, potential school closures and at-large voting.

Participating in the forum were Post 1 candidates Scott Hollowell and Barry Marchman and Post 2 candidates Mary Kay Bacallao and Gary Griffin. Post 2 candidate and current board member Terri Smith, who is running as a Democrat and will not have her race decided until November, did not attend the forum. And though she faces no opposition, Post 3 candidate Marion Key joined the panel and did respond to a number of questions.

One of the questions pertained to the NAACP lawsuit over district voting and the establishment of a majority-minority voting district in north Fayette County. If successful, the current at-large voting method for school board members would be eliminated and would be replaced by voters voting only for the district in which they reside. Candidates were asked how they would have voted if they had been on the school board when that body agreed earlier this year to settle the lawsuit and institute district voting.

Responding first, Bacallao said, “This is the issue I thought was important. I’m disappointed that a majority of the board gave away your right to vote for four of our five board members. I don’t understand why anyone would willingly give up voting rights. If district voting is enacted, our community will be divided. You can already see this happening when discussions about school closures pit Fayette city schools against the schools in Tyrone and Brooks. I think every board member should be accountable to all the voters in the county.”

Next up was Hollowell, who said he was philosophically in favor of at-large voting, adding that are some issues with district voting.

“Had I been on the board the [course] I would have recommended would be to work more with the county commission and coordinate the effort to keep the cost to the school system down,” Hollowell said.

Marchman in his response said he agreed with the idea maintaining voting rights through at-large voting.

“I understand (school board chairman Leonard Presberg’s) position that we didn’t want to waste board of education money to fight the lawsuit, but I don’t know if that was the right position because, like Mary Kay said, you‘re taking away 80 percent of your voting rights,” said Marchman. “I think your voting rights are something worth fighting for. As a taxpayer I don’t think I would have minded if the school board spent the money to fight the lawsuit.”

And Griffin in his response essentially agreed, saying that philosophically, at-large voting is the way to go.

“But I do want to make sure that, if I’m elected, I’m all-inclusive and that we make decisions that celebrate the diversity of the county and the way it’s changing now,” Griffin said. “I would have been against fighting (the lawsuit). I think the budget’s already tight. I think it would have been better to come up with solutions without spending money that the district doesn’t have.”

Key, the only current school board member on the panel, was asked to respond and to address how the board’s vote to settle the lawsuit came about so quickly.

“I did not vote for it. I voted against it because it’s a countywide school system and I think everybody in the county needs to vote for all board members so there is not a split,” said Key. “When we talk about legal issues it’s done in executive session which is the correct way to do it. And I know it was in the newspaper that it had come up.”

Split votes on the board that sometimes occur, such as the 3-2 vote on the lawsuit settlement that included Key and board member Bob Todd in opposition, was the subject of the next question. Candidates were asked whether they are already entrenched with one side or the other and if they would be a guaranteed vote for either side.

Bacallao in her response said, “Because I ran four years ago I couldn’t possibly be entrenched with anybody because I ran, I wanted to run and I felt I had something to offer. Four years later I’m that same person with an expertise in education and who wants the best for our kids.”

Hollowell was up next on the issue of split votes.

“I know sometimes there are things circulating out there that one organization asked me to run or one person asked me to run. Really, it was some PTO parents who asked me to run and that’s why I decided to run,” Hollowell said. “But I think everyone on the board will look at every issue on its own merits and look at data and make decisions that are best.”

Marchman also responded to the question.

“I made a comment at the last board meeting where I strongly disagreed with three of the board members. I think I’m my own person and I can make up my own mind. I want to represent your views on the board. My job is to be the taxpayers’ representative. I’m not representing these two or these two. I’m your representative,” Marchman said.

Griffin in his remarks said he agreed with Marchman’s statement.

“I’m here to represent the residents and citizens of Fayette County. I’m not a go-along to get-along person. I’m very independent-minded and I’ve demonstrated that recently again,” Griffin said, noting his resignation from the Atlanta School System over issues with which he disagreed. “I’ll never sacrifice my integrity when it comes to giving the very best education we can give to our kids.”

Key also responded, saying that when she goes home after a school board meeting she has to live with herself.

“Whether the vote is for or against, it is not that I’m voting ‘with’ (someone). It is the issue that I voted for,” Key said.

The next question was as potent as any asked of the candidates and, arguably, the most important question of the evening. It centered on school system finances and the projection that the school system will have a June 30, 2013 fund balance of approximately $800,000.

By way of background, the school board voted 3-2, and with Todd and Key opposing, to adopt the 2012-2013 budget using nearly all of the $15 million fund balance from 2011-2012 and leaving only $800,000 at the end of the fiscal year next June 30. Even with potential school closures that could save $3.2 million, Superintendent Jeff Bearden has stated on several recent occasions that the next budget will have to be balanced through personnel cuts.

Candidates were asked their position on the current budget and what they would do differently.

Bacallao was up first.

“The current plan uses $14 million of our reserves and leaves $800,000 at the end of the year. That’s way too low,” Bacallao said. “In times past we have actually had to borrow money from SunTrust (Bank) to pay our teachers and that doesn’t give anyone confidence. We want to have confidence in the decisions of the school board and spending our reserves does not instill financial confidence. If I’m elected I would make sure that an Excel spreadsheet of every item in the budget was made public and I would join with others on the board and support zero-based budgeting … and making sure all the expenditures are in line with our mission which is excellence in education for all our students.”

Hollowell, noting that he would elaborate more as the forum unfolded, addressed what he called the mechanics of building a fund balance.

“The way you do the fund balance is very specific. You have to have a future obligation tied to it. For example, if you wanted to build a fund balance of $2 million you’d set aside $2 million for future litigation costs. What you can’t do is set aside (that) $2 million as a rainy day fund. You have to a reasonable future expense,” Hollowell said. “Obviously it’s hard to build the fund balance in tough times. You build it in good times, but that’s the way, mechanically, you approach that.”

Marchman in his response said a large fund balance is needed to withstand financial emergencies.

“The single most important issue facing the board of education right now is financial sustainability,” Marchman said. “We cannot have a strong school system unless we have a solid financial base. The board recently voted to spend $14 million more than what we’ll receive next year. Just a few years ago the board had a very strong financial base. Then they voted to spend $5 million, $11 million and now $14 million more than they received and at the end of the next school year we’ll be left with about two days worth of money. So we’re going to be forced to take a Tax Anticipation Loan, a payday loan. This is not the path to financial sustainability. We need a large fund balance to carry us through emergencies.”

Hollowell offered a follow-up to Marchman’s remarks, saying the board should obtain information on property tax revenues earlier in the year.

“It’s easy to sit up here and say they spent all the money, they shouldn’t do it. But it is what it is. What are you going to do about it? So one of the suggestions I have is, the information from the tax assessor’s office collected in January, the school board gets it in around May. If they could use some statistical sampling in January that would give them a little bit of a heads-up as to how the tax digest is coming,” said Hollowell, adding that he would offer a pragmatic leadership approach by lobbying the state for an inflation rider to account for the lower levels of funding for public schools for which inflation is not taken into account.

Marchman then responded, saying all this can be forecast without too much margin of error, adding that, “I believe we pay about $14 million in administrative costs and I believe we have enough brain power on the board to balance the budget.”

Next up was Griffin, who said low reserve funds create risks for the school system and that he would like to see alternative sources of revenue identified.

“As I read that the reserve funds were so low, I think that creates risks for the district that were unnecessary. We all live in the real world and know in our personal lives that things happen, and they happen in the school district as well,” Griffin said. “So we have no padding in place for these unexpected expenses that are going to arise. That is a concern of mine. I would want to address that by making cuts to the budget, but more than making cuts and having a reserve, at least 10 percent, what I would most like to do is identify alternative funding and additional sources of revenue and reduce costs.”     

Key also addressed the issue, providing a take on the school board’s comments to Bearden when he proposed the budget.

“Last year we sent the budget back to the superintendent and asked him to cut some things. We need to have a workshop early on and come up with a multi-tiered list of items that can be cut and not wait until the last minute. We need to sit down and plan ahead what can be cut and how much it would save as we see what the revenues are going to be. It doesn’t need to be a last minute decision,” Key said.

Moderator Leslie Edwards noted the perception that the school board continues to add furlough days and reduce benefits to help balance the budget. Bacallao was asked what other cuts could be made beyond those affecting teachers and why teachers are leaving Fayette County.

Bacallao said all the action is happening in the classroom so that is what should be considered first.

“The cuts to be made should not affect the student-teacher relationship,” Bacallao said, adding that she would need more clarity than what was provided in the budget to know which areas to cut.

Responding to a similar question on what other cuts should be made instead of taking it from teachers, Marchman said the state funds 13 fewer principals, then changing his wordage to assistant principals, than the school system currently provides so perhaps that would be a place to start.

“It’s not the board’s job to tell the superintendent how to do his job. It’s the board’s job to set the vision and direction for the superintendent,” said Marchman. “My vision is that the school system will live within its means while budgeting a strong financial base for the future and I don’t think you can attract and keep good teachers in a system that’s living on the edge of insolvency every year. I will vote every time to support the superintendent when he has to make hard decisions that are the right thing for the community.”

Hollowell offered another perspective, saying that he recently spoke with Bearden and had received the impression that “everything was on the table when it came to the budget.” One of Bearden’s suggestions was outsourcing custodial staff so that classroom instruction is not impacted, Hollowell said.

Hollowell said Fayette does pay teachers higher than Douglas, Coweta, Fulton and Forsyth counties, adding that that does not mean Fayette teachers don’t deserve more.

Some of the school system employees in the audience took issue with Hollowell’s remarks. Issue was taken based on a lengthy presentation by teachers earlier this year showing that, based on the daily rate, Fayette pays less in wages than counties such as Coweta County and a number of others in metro Atlanta.

Asked if she wanted to respond, Key said,” When you look at the rate of pay you have to look at the daily rate … We are way down the line with teachers. I talked to a teacher today who left our school system and went to Cobb County where they are making $7,000 more than they are making here.”

Bacallao also responded, saying the research she has seen agreed with Key’s assessment.

Griffin also weighed in, saying teachers are vital to the delivery of instruction in the classroom. He noted that large sums of money can be saved through analyzing various processes within the school system, though he did not offer any examples of those processes.

“I’m not for arbitrarily cutting teacher pay. But I will say that if cuts to pay or furlough days are necessary they should be based on data and decision points and they have to be fair and equitable across the board. If teachers have to make sacrifices then everybody should have to make sacrifices,” said Griffin. “There are ways to make process improvements if you analyze the different processes within the district and that can save hundreds of thousands, if not millions, and that can balance the budget.”

On another issue, Hollowell was asked to comment on what was said to have been his statement that he would not vote to close Tyrone Elementary School that is situated in his district. He was also asked what determination he would use for closing schools.

“What I actually said was that, first off, the superintendent has not recommended closing Tyrone or Brooks. And the board can only act on what the superintendent recommends. I guess you can keep voting down his proposal until you get the one you want. But what I said was I would support keeping Tyrone open if they fix the sewer and septic issue. I think that has to be a true partnership between the town and the school system,” said Hollowell, adding that he would favor using metrics for school closings that would have the least impact on students.

Hollowell was not correct on Bearden’s proposal to close only three Fayetteville schools with no mention of closing the schools in Brooks and Tyrone. Bearden did recommend the closure of the three Title I schools in Fayetteville on April 9. But one month later, on May 2, Chairman Leonard Presberg in referencing the potential closures said, “We need to look at a proposal that includes more schools than your original proposal.” Presberg’s comment was followed by Bearden referencing the closure of two additional schools with higher pupil cost due to lower enrollment: Tyrone and Brooks.

The subsequent discussion among board members concluded with the consensus agreement that Bearden should develop four optional closure plans for consideration. Those options include the potential closures of Fayette Middle School, Fayetteville Intermediate School, Hood Avenue Primary, and/or Brooks Elementary, and/or Tyrone Elementary and the opening of Rivers Elementary. The recommendation by board member Bob Todd to close Inman Elementary got no traction from a majority on the board.

As a follow-up question, Marchman, who lives in the Tyrone area, was asked about the suggestion by Tyrone Mayor Eric Dial that the Board of Education pay the cost of running sewer to Tyrone Elementary, whether he would vote to have the school system bear the cost or if he had any other ideas on the issue.

 “I would not support spending the school system’s money to build the sewer system. I don’t think we need to set that precedent. I don’t think that’s been done in any other schools,” Marchman said, adding that, “I have a gut feeling that closing Tyrone Elementary is a bad idea.”

Marchman said he hired a Georgia Tech student to do an economic impact study on school closures that found property values declined about 10 percent, which would equate locally to a drop of approximately $600,000 in property values.

“But I would not be a man of integrity if I promised you we would never do that,” Marchman said. “I would like to look at the numbers and do a more detailed economic impact study.”

Hollowell followed up quoting another study that showed a 25 percent drop in property values with a school closure.

Griffin also weighed in on the closure question. He a resident of south Fayette County where Brooks Elementary is located.

“The practical reality is that we’ve got 2,000 more seats than we have students. No one wants to see any school close and I’m in that boat. But taking a more objective view of it, we’re going to have to look at a lot of different factors, not just a single factor, and try to get our emotions out of it,” Griffin said.

Also commenting on the closure issue, Bacallao she is not in favor of closing schools, adding her belief that the closure issue has been used as a distraction from the larger budget issue.

“I look at it from the big picture. For a whole year they (Todd and Key) asked and asked for a budget for this coming year. And (Bearden) would just do pieces of it and wouldn’t provide the budget,” Bacallao said. “So this discussion of school closures, it got everybody off the main point, which was balancing the budget. So because we started talking about all these school closures, and people were worried about that, the budget just went through and it’s the worst budget it could possibly be because it leaves us with no money at the end. So I think it was sort of used to distract us from balancing the budget. I’m not in favor of closing any schools unless I can see more information.”

Marchman jumped in saying that he is for re-purposing Rivers Elementary, the school that would be opened with the closure of the two Fayetteville elementary schools.

“I don’t think we need to redistribute students to a school out in the middle of nowhere,” Marchman said.

 A question from the audience asked what school the candidates’ children attended. Marchman was one of the ones responding to the question since his children are home schooled.

“What if one of the finest teachers in one of the best schools in Georgia designed a custom-tailored program for each one of your seven children where they can have individual instruction in a very small classroom? Would you take that deal?” Marchman asked. “That was the deal that was offered to me. My wife has volunteered to (home school) our children. We moved to Fayette County, in part, because of the school system. We take comfort in knowing that if we ever choose not to do that, we live in the shadow of the finest school system in the state. Furthermore, I’m not running for president of the PTO, I’m running for the school board. I’m running to represent the taxpayers and want to be on the board to represent them. I want to be on the board that spends the majority of your tax money and makes sure (the school system) is held to financially sustainable standards.”

Hollowell then responded saying, “As a point of distinction, I’m running for taxpayers and students. I want to make sure I’m representing students.”

Marchman minutes later noted that he did not appreciate Hollowell’s insinuation that he is not passionate about students and their education.

Another question from the audience was one pertaining to the July 31 vote on the regional transportation T-SPLOST and the continuation of the county education (E-SPLOST) tax expected to be on the ballot in November. Candidates in a two-part question were asked their position on the two taxes.

Hollowell responded first, saying that the T-SPLOST was a complicated issue and that he would be happy to talk with the questioner after the meeting. Pressed on the issue, Hollowell declined to answer. He did not respond to the question on his position on the E-SPLOST.

Marchman said he would vote “no” on both referendum items. Referencing his position on the E-SPLOST, Marchman said, “I think that you need to give this board an opportunity to prove to you that they can handle your money with integrity and responsibility. And until you’ve got a board that can prove to you that they can run the school system as a well-oiled machine and not just keep spending more than we make year after year, only then do we have the right to ask for another penny of your sales tax.”  

Bacallao did not say which way she would vote on either tax.

And Griffin said he was still looking at the T-SPLOST though he was inclined to vote for it based on the support it received from the Fayette Chamber of Commerce. Griffin did not say how he would vote on the E-SPLOST. 

Griffin after the meeting was asked if he intended to step aside if he defeats Bacallao on July 31 to pave the way for Smith to run unopposed in November.

“No. I’m in this thing to win it. There’s no way I would put myself and my family in this if I didn’t want to win,” Griffin said.   

A question that came at the beginning of the forum was of a general nature pertaining to the relationship between the school board and the superintendent. As a sitting board member, Key responded. Her response might have come as a surprise to some in the audience.

The school board does not run the school system, Key said. The superintendent is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the school system.

“We give him direction and we hold him accountable for what he does,” Key said. “That is the basic relationship.”

 Though the school system is the largest tax levying entity in the county, Fayette County, like other public school systems, holds the superintendent more like a CEO who, by and large, makes recommendations that the board either accepts or rejects. Unlike the operation of city councils or county commissions, school boards, including the Fayette County Board of Education, customarily make motions on voting items based on whether “to accept the superintendent’s recommendation.”

Adding additional perspective to the issue, board member Bob Todd on Friday said that, by state law, a school superintendent is responsible to the school board for the successful operation of the school system.

“That’s his one and only responsibility,” Todd said, who served for decades in teaching and administrative capacities in Fayette and other Georgia counties. “It’s the school board’s responsibility through policy to set their expectations for the superintendent to fulfill his or her responsibilities. Under Georgia law a school board is responsible for the operations of the school system, not the superintendent.”

So why do school boards defer to a superintendent?

“For years a superintendent was elected in Georgia. That changed in the 1990s, yet school systems operate like the law never changed,” Todd said.

For a complete view of the two-hour forum visit

The candidate’s forum was held at the Harvest Christian Community Center in Fayetteville and was sponsored by the Fayette County Local Issues Tea Party.