The Cherokee County School Board on Jan. 19, 2023. From left, front row, Chair Kyla Cromer, Erin Ragsdale, Patsy Jordan, Kelly Poole, Dr. Susan Padgett-Harrison; back row, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian V. Hightower, Robert "Rick Steiner" Rechsteiner, John Harmon.
The Cherokee County School Board on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023, welcomed two new members to the board.
Newly elected District 5 member Erin Ragsdale of Towne Lake and District 6 member Dr. Susan Padgett-Harrison of Canton were sworn into office at the start of the board’s regular meeting. Two members whose terms were up for renewal and were reelected also took their oath: District 3 member John Harmon of Hickory Flat and District 4 member Robert “Rick Steiner” Rechsteiner of southwest Cherokee.
Cherokee County Probate Court Judge Keith Wood administered the oath of office to the four officials, who each will serve four-year terms. They were joined in the ceremony by family members.
Ms. Ragsdale, a speech language pathologist, is mom to two CCSD students. Dr. Padgett-Harrison is a retired longtime CCSD educator and leader, whose family includes three children, with two now serving as CCSD educators, and 12 grandchildren.
“We’re very grateful for their willingness to serve our community’s children and look forward to all that we will accomplish together,” Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian V. Hightower said.
[See more photos from the meeting online here.]
The school board is made up of six members elected by posts and a chair who is elected countywide. Every January, they elect a vice chair to serve for the year, and on Thursday the board re-elected Mr. Steiner to the role.
During its work session, the school board received the annual progress report on CCSD’s success in meeting its Blueprint strategic plan goals. The report, which is online here, shows continued progress in meeting benchmarks for the strategic plans four priority areas: Student Achievement: Access & Opportunity; Organizational & Operational Effectiveness; Family, Partner & Community Engagement; Positive Culture & Climate; and Quality Workforce.
The school board during the work session also heard an update on the Georgia General Assembly, which began meeting this month.
In positive news, the Governor’s proposed budget for next school year fully funds the state educational formula, includes $2,000 raises for K-12 and Pre-K teachers and certified K-12 staff in the teacher salary schedule. His mid-year budget to adjust the current budget includes $50,000 grants for safety and security for every CCSD school.
Surprisingly, the proposed state budgets, both mid-year and for next school year, call for a significant increase in employer health insurance premiums for certain categories of school district employees. At present staffing numbers, the increases will occur for 160 non-QBE (state educational funding formula) funded certified employees and 1,602 classified employees (this group includes non-teaching jobs like cafeteria workers, bus drivers, school nurses, police officers, etc.) over the course of the current and next two fiscal years and will require additional local funding. The cost to CCSD for this increase will be approximately $518,000 this spring, $5.7 million next school year and $11 million per school year going forward.
While the state has said premiums that employees pay out of their paychecks will not rise this calendar year, the dramatic increase in the employer cost paid for CCSD is a large and unexpected hit to the local budget. The local budget is funded by local property taxes and is used for such important needs as increasing employee pay above and beyond state minimums to remain competitive. Dr. Hightower in December had announced his plan to propose the school board use local funds to raise employee pay across the board at a cost of $15 million for next school year as well as a possible retention bonus costing approximately $5.4 million in local funding. There have been no proposals to increase employee premium costs this calendar year
Ms. Ragsdale and Dr. Susan Padgett-Harrison both voiced their support for a CCSD budget that ensures the salary increases and retention bonuses remain funded despite the state’s unexpected health insurance cost hike.
“We have to fight for the best all the way to the end,” Dr. Padgett-Harrison said about the importance of the raises and bonuses for recruitment and retention.
The CCSD budget process begins with school board members submitting their budget priorities next month and ends in June with the school board’s vote to approve the budget.
“If it’s a priority for you,” Dr. Hightower said of the budget process, “it’s a priority for us.”
Competitive salary was a top issue raised in CCSD’s annual employee survey, and Dr. Hightower also spoke to another concern raised by employees: the need for more kindergarten paraprofessional support. The state’s decision to raise health insurance costs, he said, has made his initial idea of returning to a full-time paraprofessional model too costly. Instead, he plans to propose in the budget that CCSD double the number of part-time paraprofessionals and institute a job share model to ensure kindergarten classes have dedicated support all day, every day. The additional cost would be funded with federal pandemic relief funds next school year and local funds in future years.
“This was a pain point in our elementary schools,” he said of paraprofessional staffing levels, noting their positive impact on kindergartners’ learning and behavior also benefits teachers of higher grade levels. “We think this is a good intervention.”
In other legislative news, Dr. Hightower said the district’s efforts to support Mountain Education Charter High School appear to be succeeding. Through its partnership with CCSD, Mountain Ed provides an in-person evening high school option at Etowah High School for the community’s students, who have benefitted from its additional services such as individual mentoring. The state legislature last year passed legislation that would prevent Mountain Ed from renewing its state charter, but a legislative remedy is reportedly being drafted. CCSD Chief of Staff Mike McGowan and the Superintendent have been working with House leadership on a bill that will likely be filed this month which will hopefully allow the school to renew its contract with the State.
The legislature also is expected to again propose “Education Savings Account” taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools, and it is believed that the state leadership’s opposition to these programs has waned. The school board, through approval of its Legislative Partnership Priorities, states that the use of taxpayer funds for vouchers should include academic and fiscal accountability structures which mirror those mandated for public education systems in Georgia. Past voucher legislation proposed and approved by the state has not included such accountability.
Dr. Hightower previously had announced plans to request the School Board reconsider the timing of the winter holiday break for the 2023-24 school year. He withdrew that agenda item prior to the meeting’s start. He said he plans to leave the 2023-24 calendar as is and will instead add to the ad hoc calendar committee’s business rules that considerations should be made for adjusting the break when the first semester ends very late in December. The committee, which is tasked with creating draft calendar proposals for the Superintendent’s review, consists of staff, parents and teachers. It will be convened next spring to begin the development of the 2025-26, 2026-27 and 2027-28 school year calendars.
The School Board also:
• Recognized Air Force Chief of Staff 2023 Flight Academy scholarship recipients. Learn more here;
• Recognized 2022-23 Elementary School Math Competition Winners. Learn more here;
• Approved the Renewal of Partnership Agreement with The Cherokee Board of Commissioners
• Approved the adoption of Georgia Education Coalition (GEC) 2023 Legislative and Policy Priorities
• Approved the final reading of state-mandated changes to the supplementary materials selection and adoption policy;
• Approved monthly financial reports;
• Approved out of state staff travel;
• Approved out of state and overnight student field trips;
• Approved the monthly update on capital outlay projects;
• Approved special lease agreements;
• Approved the monthly personnel report;
• Approved second semester appointments to the tribunal panel for student disciplinary hearings; and,
• Approved the 2023-24 organizational chart, which reflects the reduction of one senior staff position and no additions.