Earlier this year, the 40-year county resident unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Katie Reeves for the Fulton County School Board District 2 seat. Reeves has held the school board post since 1999 and is now in her fifth term.
By Tom Pemble
Parents all across Fulton County are expressing their disappointment at the loss of Dr. Jeff Rose as our superintendent. In his short tenure Dr. Rose became known as someone with a clear vision, someone who knew that the most important job is to make sure students are learning and achieving at high levels, an effective communicator, a great listener and was someone who was not afraid to make a commitment to accomplish his goals for the students of Fulton County.
This is just the most recent departure of a Fulton County Schools superintendent.
Superintendents since 2003 include:
2003 Michael Payne - Interim, 9 months
2003 – 2004 John Haro – Resigned 10/29/03 after 5 months. Fulton spent $70K in the search for him.
2004 – 2005 Michael Vanairsdale – 13 months. Resigned in the midst of cost overrun investigation in the county building program.
2005 – 2008 James Wilson – Retired but was interviewing with Williamson County, N.C., in 2009.
2008 – 2011 Cindy Loe – Resigned for personal reasons.
2011 – 2015 Robert Avossa – Resigned
2015 – 1016 Kenneth Zeff – Interim
2016 – 2018 Jeff Rose – Resigned for personal reasons
The Fulton County School System has had eight school chiefs in 15 years, an average of 1.88 years in the position.
In writing about the turnover, the AJC headlined its story the "Revolving door in Fulton superintendent's office." Seventy thousand dollars for a search seems typical of what the county is spending to find new candidates.
The residents of Fulton County need to ask why we have this constant churning of leadership.
The first major action taken by the Fulton County school board this summer was to raise taxes. As property assessments increase, keeping taxes revenue neutral requires that millage rates be reduced. If the millage rates are not rolled back sufficiently to keep taxes revenue neutral, the county is required by state law to advertise the tax increase and hold public hearings.
Ultimately the school board voted to roll back the millage by 0.75 mills, resulting in a 7.44 percent tax increase for the residents of Fulton County. The projected rate inflation is 2.49 percent. The Fulton Schools tax increase is 3.0 times the projected inflation rate.
Robert Morales, chief financial officer for Fulton County Schools, said the 17.796 millage rate would result in a $12 million deficit and a rollback of 1.0 mills would result in a $20 million deficit. He said budget cuts would need to be made to cover the costs. At the recent superintendent’s community meeting, it was reported Mr. Morales made the statement that for the first time, Fulton County Schools will run into the red next year.
And even with these dire predictions, our school board continues to grow the central administration as evidenced by the creation of the “Division of Innovative Programs” and hiring a new assistant superintendent. The hiring of a staff to support the new assistant superintendent is sure to follow.
This comes after board members said they couldn’t afford to hire counselors and social workers to support the social and emotional needs of children in our schools or reduce class size to facilitate learning. The continually increasing tax burden placed on Fulton residents to expand administrative overhead needs to stop.
Reporting on an investigation of DeKalb County Schools in 2012 by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the AJC described a “scathing report” by Mark Elgart, the head of SACS. In the report, Elgart accused DeKalb officials of “letting finances wither.” The problems were described as stemming from a decade of “poor, ineffective governance” that caused a decline in academic performance and pushed the nearly 100,000-student system to the financial brink.
From what we are hearing, the Fulton County school board is pushing us to the financial brink as well.
Niche, an organization that compiles comprehensive rankings of schools, published a list of the 100 best public elementary schools in Georgia. Forsyth County elementary schools held 16 of the top 30 spots. Sixteen of Forsyth's 21 elementary schools are in the Top 30. Fulton County's only appearances in the top 100 were at #81 and #91.
Forsyth manages to achieve this while spending $8,221 per student, compared to $9,638 per student spent by Fulton County. Additionally, Forsyth manages to provide tax relief to seniors while still providing a superior education for students.
Can Fulton do the same? Absolutely, but it will require refocusing our resources from the central office back to the schools and students.
This is something Fulton school board members have been unwilling to even consider for decades. Additionally, management needs retraining in the area of employee relations. Teachers and staff need to be treated with respect and the dignity they deserve. This is also true of their treatment of parents in the community.
At board member Linda McCain's community meeting on Sept. 18, she referred to a coalition of parents from both north and south Fulton county as being "a little campaign" in support of Dr. Rose. She went on to say, "He's super uncomfortable about it. Just so you know."
This disconnect with what is going on at the school level goes along with the lack of interest in providing social and emotional support of students and lowering of class sizes. Teachers have long been treated dismissively by being advised to “stay in their lane,” which translates to “we don’t want to hear from you.” This attitude has resulted in the increased turnover of teachers and school administrators in Fulton.
Fulton County schools can certainly rise to the challenges it faces and become competitive with systems such as Forsyth County, but there must be change. The current board members have been there for decades or have been hand chosen and appointed by outgoing members, so they could run as the incumbent. This incestuous process has led to the lack of transparency and arrogance toward the community we have today.
While some board members may be more pleasant and approachable than others, I encourage all to look at their actions and votes. As long as the net effect is to maintain the status quo, we have no reason to believe or hope that we will do better. To stop the constant churning in the office of superintendent and refocus resources on the students, there needs to be a change in the board.
We need school board candidates focused on doing what is best for the students and only what is best for the students, candidates who will listen to parents with open minds, candidates who will promise to pull back the curtains that shroud the budgeting practices, candidates not beholding to vendors, candidates who believe addressing social, emotional and safety needs of children is more important than large travel budgets and fancy furniture.
The next time you are told “it just cannot be done” suggest your board member take a field trip to Forsyth County and ask how they can do it on just 85 percent of the money per student.
Our school board refuses to take any responsibility for problems that arise; they look for scapegoats. In the case of the excessive cost over-runs in the construction of Riverwood High School, expected to exceed $112 million dollars, board members made excuses and passed the buck. They seemed surprised at the soaring costs.
I would like to point out it is their responsibility to protect the taxpayers. Construction companies are in business to make a profit, they were not elected to safeguard the interests of the taxpayers of Fulton County. YOU WERE!