The Cherokee County School Board at its work session and regular meeting this evening reviewed the proposed CCSD budget for next school year, which balances a State funding shortfall without the need for furlough days or a tax rate increase, and heard an update on school reopening plans.
The School Board, as is its standard practice, unanimously voted to table the Superintendent’s recommended tentative budget, which will allow a month of public review prior to its final approval in July. The tentative budget is posted online at https://bit.ly/CCSDbudget21 Three public hearings (July 8 at 11:30 a.m. and July 16 at 11:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m.) will be held prior to the School Board’s July 16 meeting during which a vote to approve the budget and set the millage rate for property taxes will be taken.
School Board members begin the annual budget process by setting priorities, which included that the budget be balanced without the use of furlough days or a millage rate increase. Furlough days were required for a decade due to “state austerity cuts” following the recession and meant a loss of school days for students and a resulting reduction in pay for all CCSD employees.
The $410 Million operating budget is based on the current millage rate of 19.45 mills, with $25 Million in planned spending cut in preparation for a potential 11% drop in State education funding (pending the State Legislature’s budget approval) due to COVID-19’s impact on State revenue. The CCSD operating budget, which includes salaries and employee benefits (making up 91% of the total budget – an increase from last year’s 87% due to proposed spending cuts), utilities, bus fuel, insurance and other day-to-day expenses, is funded by local property taxes and State education funding; federal funds are allotted to CCSD for specific costs, such as a portion of special education services.
“What a struggle to even get right here,” School Board member Clark Menard said, as he praised CCSD staff for the balanced budget during the meeting, which was held virtually through Microsoft Teams and streamed live online. “I really appreciate all the hard work.”
Education SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) revenue pays for a separate budget of specific voter-approved construction projects, technology infrastructure, land purchases, and related debt reduction; this income cannot be used for operations, such as salaries. This year’s proposed Ed SPLOST budget is $30 Million and includes completion of the Mill Creek MS classroom addition and Creekview HS agricultural classroom building, and beginning construction of additional classrooms at Woodstock MS, a second gymnasium at Woodstock HS, and athletic facility improvements at Etowah HS, among other projects.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian V. Hightower tasked his budget committee of senior staff, led by Chief Financial Officer Kenneth Owen, with keeping the cuts needed to balance the operating budget as far from the classroom as possible.
School Board member Patsy Jordan read a message she received from a grateful teacher and followed it with her own praise for Dr. Hightower and his team.
“I can’t say how much I appreciate [you] cutting things that are furthest from our students,” she said.
Another top budget priority set by School Board members was to continue to maintain competitive compensation for CCSD employees, and Dr. Hightower’s recommended budget includes a longevity salary “step” increase for eligible staff.
School Board Vice Chair Kelly Poole spoke to this issue, citing its importance in recruiting and retaining excellent teachers, whom she thanked for their service: “You are making such a difference in our students’ lives.” School Board Chair Kyla Cromer also complimented CCSD’s budget process, noting that several metro area school boards are facing adopting budgets that use furlough days to cut costs. She added she was proud to see CCSD’s commitment to Social and Emotional Learning remain a priority in the proposed budget.
While Dr. Hightower has not yet announced his plans for reopening schools, which he will share with employees and parents as soon as possible in July, his proposed operating budget does include funding to increase safety measures. These expenses include increasing funds to clean and disinfect schools, installing transparent plastic partitions in front offices and cafeterias, and purchasing hand sanitizer for all classrooms.
“You’ve done a great job protecting what we’re in the business to get done here,” School Board member Mike Chapman said.
As CCSD’s new budget year begins July 1, and the State’s budget approval process, and therefore CCSD’s process, has been delayed due to COVID-19, a spending resolution was needed to bridge the gap, which the School Board adopted unanimously.
SCHOOL REOPENING PLANS
While the proposed budget dominated the work session, the focus shifted in the regular meeting to plans for reopening school.
Dr. Hightower updated the School Board on the process to develop reopening plans, which began with the appointment of an advisory committee made up of CCSD educators, parents and partners. Chief Operations Officer Dr. Debra Murdock, who is leading the committee, spoke briefly to the School Board about its initial meeting. Chief Human Resources Officer Rick Beaulieu is leading a separate advisory committee made up entirely of CCSD staff from different occupations within the organization.
Both groups will provide feedback to Dr. Hightower as he determines an official reopening plan, which he remains committed to announcing to the CCSD community in as timely a manner as possible in July.
As shared earlier this month with the School Board, employees and parents, CCSD took a step toward “return to school” with “return to play,” by permitting small groups of student athletes to participate in limited conditioning activities on school campuses. Based on new guidance issued today by the Georgia High Schools Association, the number of athletes permitted on a campus at a time will double beginning next week.
Dr. Hightower also announced during the meeting that year-round CCSD staff, who have worked remotely throughout the school and office closures, will return to their worksites beginning Monday, June 22. All CCSD employees were notified this week of the plan, which is the first phase in returning all CCSD staff to their worksites, with details to be announced as soon as possible for employees who typically would not work in June and/or most of July. Additionally, he announced that his annual leadership symposium held in mid-July, which provides back-to-school updates and training for district leaders and school administrators, will be held virtually instead of in person.
During the meeting, Dr. Hightower also announced he will send a questionnaire to CCSD parents next week asking whether they would prefer to send their children back to school in person on Aug. 3, or instead participate in online learning from home. The questionnaires will be connected to students by their student ID, and the data will be used to ensure resources are available for both options being considered by Dr. Hightower.
“We’re not asking parents to vote on a plan, as I will be making my decision based on what’s in the best interest of our students, the state of public health in our community, and any mandates issued by the state or federal government,” he said. “Parents’ input through this questionnaire is critically important to ensure we have the staff and resources in place to meet students’ needs.”
The School Board also:
• Approved the renewal of the partnership agreement with Cherokee Child Advocacy Council, Inc.;
• Approved the first reading of modifications and updates to School Board Policies;
• Approved the monthly financial report;
• Approved the submission to the State of CCSD’s annual plan for improvement of Career, Technical and Agricultural Education (CTAE) programs and one-year funding application;
• Approved the monthly capital outlay projects report;
• Approved special lease agreements; and,
• Approved monthly personnel recommendations.
The School Board’s next meeting is July 16.