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Smith, Bacallao answer questions at C of C-sponsored forum

More than 100 voters last week got to hear it “straight from the horses’ mouths” at a candidate question and answer session hosted by the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce at Peachtree City United Methodist Church.

On the political hot seats for the Post 2 seat on the Fayette County Board of Education were incumbent homemaker and newly-proclaimed Democrat Terri Smith and her challenger, college professor and Republican Mary Kay Bacallao.

Both received questions prepared by university leaders on behalf of the chamber and also direct questions asked by audience members.

Both candidates were asked where they stood on the hot-button issue of school closings. Bacallao said she did not favor closing any schools, while Smith didn’t back down from her support for the proposal from Superintendent Jeff Bearden to close Fayette Middle School along with Fayetteville Intermediate and Hood Avenue elementary schools and likely move nearly all those elementary school students to the new but nearly empty Rivers Elementary School.

Smith said the closings would save some administrative overhead costs by consolidating schools, though she felt those savings were “a drop in the bucket” to the budget shortfall the school system is facing.

“It’s not going to solve the problem. It’s one tiny piece of the puzzle,” Smith said. “I think it should be done in a manner that is least disruptive. I don’t think students should be moved for the sake of balancing enrollment between two schools or anything like that.”

Bacallao referenced an “unwritten assumption” between house buyers and the school board that they are buying a home in a certain school district, which often is one of the main criteria for selecting a home in Fayette County.

“If elected, I will honor these choices,” Bacallao said, noting that many times home purchasing, and thus school choice selection, are tied to a 30-year mortgage. “Parents don’t want the educational fate of their children to be decided by five people who don’t get along.”

Bacallao did not explain what other parts of the budget she would cut to equal the potential savings from closing any number of schools.

In addition to the superintendent’s plan, the current board of education is also considering a second school closing option that would shutter Tyrone and Brooks elementary schools and instead keep FIS and Hood Avenue running as a consolidated school while leaving Rivers on the same mission it has now: serving some of the county’s special education students.

A potential revenue-producing proposal was also the subject of a citizen question: where each candidate stood on a plan to allow out-of-county students to attend Fayette public schools if they paid tuition to do so.

Bacallao in a brief reply said she feels the board’s mission is to serve students who live in Fayette County, but she did not specifically state she was opposed to the concept.

Smith replied that while she agreed with Bacallao and in previous years herself has thought the idea was too onerous, she is now open to exploring the possibility because of the school system’s precarious fiscal position and a need to look at school closing and redistricting.

“I don’t think we should do it unless we can do it in a way that creates positive cash flow, generates revenue and does not create a burden on our existing teachers and students,” Smith said, adding that it should not be allowed to create overcrowded classrooms and the school system would have the right to not allow such students back if they don’t prove to be “assets to the school system.”

One citizen asked Bacallao a follow-up question about her position on creating a college and career academy that would allow students to take both college and technical school level courses for credit, and perhaps gain a technical certificate in a profession that is needed by local industries that are suffering from a shortfall of specifically skilled applicants.

The movement is actually being led by local business and industry officials, supported by other elected officials as they seek to partner with the school system to hopefully get state funding for seed money to start up the school in an existing school building.

Earlier in the forum, Bacallao responded to a question about her support for the college and career academy by saying she instead prefers to focus on raising the county’s average SAT score from fourth in the entire state to being back in first place.

“I believe SAT scores are our bread and butter and I would like to get back to where we were as number one,” Bacallao said. “... Before we look at creating any new academies, I would use the existing structure to continuously improve our offerings.”

Bacallao also spoke of an option to use existing videos to meet the career and college decision-making support for students.

“What they’re learning in the classroom needs to be applicable to the real world, so we need to get them ready for college and careers,” Bacallao said.

Bacallao in responding to a citizen question said she wants to see a survey to determine what the parents and the students want and are interested in “and guide our course offerings according to that.”

“I know the business community has needs and I would say that those needs would be secondary to the choices parents make. And I also would consider those needs (of the business community), but not before the choices that the parents make,” Bacallao said.

Smith, speaking about the potential college and career academy, pointed out that many other students in Georgia are taking advantage of similar academies in public school systems. Smith said she is excited to see the idea take off, particularly since a school system-driven effort to start a career academy fell flat “for a variety of reasons” around 2001.

“I think that Fayette County students should certainly have the same opportunities,” Smith said.

The topic of which metrics to judge schools’ performance by also was broached with both candidates. Bacallao said while all county schools have met the Advanced Yearly Progress goals set by the federal government, she feels the system needs to “challenge the kids more and get into more higher level thinking, problem solving, those 21st century skills that are needed in the workplace.”

“It’s not just about the test. If it’s just about the test then we’ve already reached that,” Bacallao said. She continued that the county’s statewide ranking dropping from first to fourth will “affect our kids’ entrance into college admissions. That can affect a lot of things and affect our community.”

The need is to make sure teachers have the tools to be successful with the students without being upset about issues at the board level, Bacallao said.

Smith said that she preferred a system that would measure how much a student has improved from the beginning of the school year to the end of the school year. She called that analysis “a growth model.”

“To say this child has grown this much in whatever it is that is being measured, and to track that kind of data on the children from year to year, or even throughout a year, instead of trying to deal with averages,” Smith said. “Because when you’re dealing with averages, you’re dealing with so many variables over which the schools and teachers don’t have any control. ... I think what we should be looking at is a growth model on each individual child on the skills the standards that we want them to accomplish and really pay far less attention to test scores as a way to sort students, rank students, rank schools

Standardized test scores started as a way to compare teachers, schools and school districts to each other, Smith noted.

“It really doesn’t matter to me as much that we’re first in the state, although I would very much like for us to be first, and if we’re falling from first I would want to see why we’re doing that,” Smith said. “But I think our concern should be much more focused on student growth.”

Both candidates were addressing a question about how to cut the budget “to make sure a sufficient level of staffing exists to provide students with a quality education.”

Smith said keeping class sizes as low as possible has been one of the school system’s goals for some time. But the school system is having to look at the teaching positions funded by the state compared to those positions that are not funded by the state.

“We feel like, obviously, with the fewer students, the more teacher attention you can get,” Smith said. “That’s always been the philosophy in Fayette County for a long time.”

Bacallao said she advocated a zero-based budgeting approach to make sure all expenditures go to support classroom teachers. Bacallao also said because her top issue is “teacher quality” she wants to make sure they are compensated.

“An excellent teacher can make a huge difference in the lives of the students,” Bacallao said. “We need to make sure we keep our best teachers. We don’t want to pay them less than the metro Atlanta average because frankly, if we do we’re going to lose the best ones.”

Bacallao said she wants the school system to publish all its expenditures online.

Both candidates were also asked which budget saving options they supported.

Smith said that barring the state restoring funding, there are some things she doesn’t see the county being able to continue to fund such as first-grade paraprofessionals.

“We had separated high school and middle school bus routes quite some time ago for safety of students and we don’t like the idea of combining those but there might be come money possibly saved there,” Smith said.

There is also the option of outsourcing some school employees and perhaps generating revenue by allowing out of county students to attend Fayette schools, but pay tuition.

“They are looking in every department for ways to save money all the time,” Smith said.

Bacallao replied by pointing out that the non-personnel costs of operating Fayette Middle School along with the Fayette Intermediate, Hood Avenue, Brooks and Tyrone schools totals $327,750.

“That is not worth it. I will not do that,” Bacallao said in reference to closing those schools.

The other option is to trim personnel to be in line with the number of students currently in the school system, Bacallao said.

“We need to go back and look at what funding levels dictate and we need to go by that,” Bacallao said.

Dovetailing with the budget was a question on the proposed extension of the educational sales tax, which has paid for technology upgrades, textbooks, school buses and also allowed a reduction in property taxes for local property owners.

Bacallao said she will vote for the E-SPLOST but if it fails, property taxes will increase in the county by a hike to the bond millage rate, which is separate from the school board’s millage rate for maintenance and operations. The latter has reached the maximum levy of 20 mills and cannot be increased without voter approval.

Bacallao said the E-SPLOST is supported by out of county shoppers who make purchases here.

On the other hand, if the E-SPLOST doesn’t pass, “it probably means fewer teachers,” Bacallao said, because about $10 million will need to be added to the M&O budget to account for the exhaustion of E-SPLOST funds. “... More hard choices will have to be made.”

The E-SPLOST will make it easier to retain more of the school system’s excellent teachers and employees, Bacallao said.

Smith said she also supports the E-SPLOST, pointing out the benefit of using some of the funds to pay down debt and reduce the bond millage rate.

“Dr. Bacallao is exactly correct: if the E-SPLOST doesn’t pass, the other items like technology, transportation, textbooks ... are going to put a lot more pressure on the maintenance and operation dollars and we will be making choices with regards to class sizes and other things we offer our students and our teachers instead of replacing the transportation fleet at a better rate. We’ll be having to make sacrifices somewhere in the budget because we are at the maximum millage rate.”

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