School Board members, including John Harmon, congratulate Cherokee HS healthcare science students Aerianna Avrit and Haley Kelley on their first-place wins at the Georgia Skills USA competition.
The Cherokee County School Board on Thursday heard good news about the school district’s financial outlook due to increasing home values and discussed ways to reduce the burden on taxpayers, while also using some of the windfall to make teacher and staff pay more competitive.
[NOTE: The video of last night’s meeting is online here and a photo gallery is online here.]
Earlier this month, the county tax assessor’s office announced projections that the tax digest, which is the value of all real property, has increased by approximately 20% this year due to rising home values. Based on a conservative estimate of a 15% average increase in home values after the appeals process, the rising values could yield an additional $29 million in property tax revenue for the school district if no action is taken to reduce the millage rate.
“You may get sticker shock with your assessments, but know we’re working hard to reduce the rate to mitigate that pain,” Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian V. Hightower said, referring to the property tax millage rate for schools, which is set by the School Board.
The School Board next month will receive the Superintendent’s recommended annual budget for the next fiscal year, which begins in July. The School Board and the public will have a month to review the budget, with three public hearings scheduled prior to the vote to approve the budget and property tax millage rate in June. While the zero-based budget is still in the development phase, Dr. Hightower shared several proposals with the School Board.
If the School Board reduces the millage rate by 1.25 to 1.5 mills, it would decrease the burden on taxpayers while still maintaining current levels of school district service, despite rising inflation costs and the potential for a market correction. By limiting the reduction to these levels, the School Board could additionally shift .25 of the total mills from daily operating expenses to debt service reduction, which allows the school district to reduce the need for long-term debt for capital outlay projects and instead use Education SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) revenue. Additionally, this allows the school district to pay off construction debt faster. Taken together, this action allows the district to avoid interest payments and improve its credit rating, just like it does for homeowners who retire their mortgage faster.
Due to efforts over the past six years to do this, the School Board on Thursday night was able to vote to pay off bonds issued in 2012 for school construction 11 years earlier than required, which will avoid $7.8 million in interest payments and reduce CCSD’s construction debt by $29.4 million. This early payoff, which was the first ever for CCSD, was accomplished both through previously shifting more mills from daily operating costs to debt service, coupled with higher than projected sales tax collections.
The millage rate reductions being considered in developing the budget would leave the school district with enough funds to increase teacher and staff pay through “step” longevity raises, pay associated employers costs like FICA and Medicare for the Governor’s $2,000 pay raise for teachers taking effect in July and, in keeping with the school district’s practice of extending such raises to all employees, implementing 2% cost of living raises and salary scale changes to provide parity, and increasing teacher allotments to further lower class size. The recently increased daily substitute teacher pay rate of $150, which was established as a pandemic relief measure, will become permanent for next school year.
“I think this shows how invested we are in our employees and how valuable they are to us,” School Board Chair Kyla Cromer said of the salary measure to be proposed as part of next year’s budget. She also thanked Dr. Hightower and his staff for crunching numbers for a millage rate reduction, as that was a priority for the School Board members.
The School Board on Thursday also approved expanding the Governor’s “bonus” one-time supplemental pay of $2,000 for specific full- and part-time employees. The school district employs an additional 798 full-time and 31 part-time employees who would not receive these payments, according to the state guidelines. Dr. Hightower’s recommendation, which was approved by the School Board, was to use $1.6 million in state funds (available now due to the reversal of state “austerity budget cuts”) to provide the additional pay to these employees as well. Additionally, Dr. Hightower recommended, and the School Board approved, for substitute teachers and temporary employees (lunchroom monitors, ASP workers, etc.) to receive one-time supplemental pay of $500, also to be funded with the restored state funds. These one-time supplemental payments will be included in April payroll.
The School Board during Thursday’s meeting received a report on the recent recommendation that CCSD’s international accreditation as a high-quality school system be renewed for another five years!
Accreditation is the highest level of overall accountability for school systems. It is achieved through an independent review by a team of education professionals who measure excellence by set standards. CCSD is accredited by Cognia, formerly known as AdvancEd and SACS, which is considered the world’s top accreditation organization by both public and private school systems and colleges and universities.
Cognia last month reviewed CCSD in three main areas: Learning, which includes curriculum, instruction and assessment; Resources, which includes use of resources entrusted to it by taxpayers; and Leadership, which includes the governance of the School Board and Superintendent of Schools, including accountability and transparency efforts and School Board policies. Cognia has adopted new standards, which will not be in effect until CCSD’s next renewal in five years.
CCSD Chief Academic Officer Dr. Nicole Holmes, whose office led the accreditation review preparation process, shared highlights from Cognia’s report with the School Board.
The full report, which Dr. Holmes reviewed, is online here and includes an overall score for the district. The overall score is 377.74, which not only exceeds the average scores of 278.34 to 283.33, but also topped CCSD’s score from five years ago of 315.85, which at the time was the highest score ever earned.
In the Leadership category, CCSD received Impacting, the highest score, possible for all standards. In the Learning category, CCSD earned Impacting scores for 11 of 12 standards, with Improving – the second highest score – for one. In the Resources category, CCSD received Impacting scores for six of eight standards, with Improving for two.
“Across the board, only three improving? That’s something to celebrate,” Dr. Holmes said, noting that, five years ago, Learning was the lowest-scored category for CCSD. “We’re very excited to see learning measure up with leadership.”
During the presentation, Dr. Holmes also shared this chart, which shows how CCSD’s scores have improved on national tests including SAT, ACT and AP exams (which did see a dip due to COVID-19) and the graduation rate. “We’re continuing to put forth the effort that every student has the opportunity to be successful,” she said.
CCSD earned 11 commendations for excellence from Cognia, and no requirements for improvement were issued. The commendations praised CCSD for its: targeted focus on achieving student success; district vision and accountability; visionary leadership and excellent transparency; strong strategic focus; clearly defined processes, expectations and procedures for operations; intentional use of financial and human resources; recruiting and retaining top teachers, support staff and leaders; building capacity in teachers through outstanding training, resources and tools; collaboration among educators; professional development to improve teaching practices; leadership opportunities for students, parents and employees; and “growth heartset” that focuses on the well-being of all students, employees and families.
While Cognia review teams often have recommendations for improvement, for CCSD, the team instead recommended that the Superintendent and School Board stay the course on current initiatives, specifically noting existing plans to step up blended learning to further incorporate technology in classrooms and to provide even more future-ready skills to graduates.
From left to right, Doug Knott, Trey Moores, Sarah Boulineau, Trang Pham, Sandi Harrison, Janet Marotte, Ashley Polito and Hilary Collins.
As part of its approval of the monthly personnel recommendations, the School Board approved a significant retirement and several leadership appointments.
Doug Knott, a longtime CCSD educator and Principal of Liberty Elementary School, this month announced his plans to retire. A 32-year educator, Principal Knott taught and led for 29 of those years in CCSD including as a teacher and coach, for which he earned a school Teacher of the Year award; assistant principal for Mountain Road ES; and Principal for Ball Ground ES (nine years) and Liberty ES (eight years). His many accolades as a Principal have included Cherokee County PTA Outstanding Principal and leading Liberty to State and National School of Character awards. His wife, Ruth, who is an Avery ES teacher, also is retiring this year after longtime service.
“Doug has led with tremendous service,” Dr. Hightower said, noting the numerous honors Liberty ES has earned for character education during Principal Knott’s tenure including the National School of Character award and nine national Promising Practice awards. “He’s carved out a wonderful career, and we’re so proud of you.”
• Trey Moores, who has served as director of capital improvements since 2019, has been appointed to serve as CCSD’s next Chief Support Services Officer. Mr. Moores brings 26 years of experience to the role, and his past construction projects have included the Mercedes Benz Stadium and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta support buildings, remodeling Coca-Cola’s Atlanta headquarters and gate modernization at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
• LaToya Gray, who has served as a Special Education director, has been appointed to serve as CCSD’s curriculum and instruction director for elementary schools. Julie Dutko, past principal of Ball Ground Elementary School STEM Academy, has been appointed to serve as CCSD’s supervisor for staff and professional development. Izell McGruder, a longtime educator and past Principal who serves as CCSD’s coordinator for federal programs, has been promoted to serve as supervisor.
• Sarah Boulineau, who serves as CCSD’s purchasing clerk and has 15 years of experience, has been promoted to serve as coordinator for procurement services. Toni Hedges, who serves as coordinator for CCSD School Nutrition, has been promoted to serve as supervisor. Trang Pham, a registered dietitian with 20 years of experience who currently works for Kennesaw State University, is joining CCSD School Nutrition as a coordinator.
• Sandi Harrison, a 17-year educator who since 2019 has served as assistant principal at Hasty Elementary School Fine Arts Academy, will serve as the next Principal for Liberty ES. Ms. Harrison previously served as an instructional lead strategist and teacher for CCSD and has been honored as a school Teacher of the Year. Her post at Hasty will be filled by Janet Marotte, a 17-year educator who currently serves as a teacher at Knox Elementary School STEM Academy, where she was named the school’s Teacher of the Year.
• Ashley Polito, who currently serves as assistant principal at Oak Grove Elementary School Fine Arts Academy, will begin serving as Principal of Holly Springs Elementary School STEM Academy this month. An 11-year educator, she previously served as a teacher and academic facilitator at Clark Creek Elementary School STEM Academy and worked for Fulton County Schools as a teacher and project based learning coach.
• Hilary Collins, a nine-year educator who currently serves as the instructional lead strategist at Creekview HS, will serve as an assistant principal at Woodstock HS. Nancy Henson, who currently serves as an assistant principal at Woodstock HS, will move to Creekview HS to fulfill the same role there. Lauren Wade, who currently serves as an assistant principal overseeing CCSD’s elementary school digital learning program, will serve next school year as an assistant principal at Clark Creek Elementary School STEM Academy.
“These leaders all are standouts, and we’re so fortunate to have them on our team,” Dr. Hightower said. “We’re so excited about all they will do to help us continue to improve our schools and district divisions.”
Dr. Hightower also received a standing ovation at the start of the meeting, as he was recognized by the School Board for receiving the Georgia School Superintendents Association President’s Award for Outstanding Leadership earlier this week. Ms. Cromer noted that they would not have earned the state’s Governance Team of the Year award or such high marks for the accreditation renewal without his leadership to carry out School Board’s policies.
The School Board also:
• Heard an update on the recently completed Georgia General Assembly and the timeline for implementation of new legislation impacting schools;
• School Board member Clark Menard, for the meeting’s Inspiration, shared a tribute to the most influential teacher in his life, Sharon Jolivette of Laura Wilder Elementary School;
• School Board member Mike Chapman recognized the successful robotics clubs serving CCSD students – Sequoyah HS Robotics Club and Firestorm Robotics, which is community based and serves students districtwide;
• Recognized CCSD Teacher of the Year Jonathan Gustin of Cherokee HS. Read more here;
• Recognized CCSD 2022 Counselor of the Year Kati Kong of River Ridge HS and the Innovation Zone Counselors of the Year. Read more here;
• Recognized Cherokee HS students for earning top honors at the Georgia Skills USA Competition. Read more here;
• Recognized 2022 Georgia Technology Student Association Competition award winners from Creekland MS and Woodstock HS. Read more here;
• Recognized CCSD 2022 Spelling Bee Winners. Read more here;
• Recognized CCSD 2021-22 Governor's Honors Finalists. Read more here;
• Recognized Etowah HS Air Force JROTC Program for earning its highest ever overall unit assessment score of exceeds standards. Read more here;
• Recognized CCSD students selected for All-State Band and Orchestra. Read more here;
• Recognized CCSD’s Georgia High School Association State and Regional Champions for girls and boys basketball. Read more here;
• Recognized Creekview HS senior Ashley Tippens as recipient of 2022 Waste Management/Pine Bluff Landfill Scholarship. Read more here;
• Approved the renewal of Partnership Agreements with Reinhardt University and the Cherokee County YMCA and the approval of a new Partnership Agreement with Revolution Church, which is taking over the annual Give A Kid A Chance back-to-school backpack distribution event. Read more here;
• Approved monthly financial reports;
• Approved out of state travel by staff;
• Approved out of state and overnight field trips;
• Approved a resolution to certify the completion of the Woodstock MS classroom addition and Woodstock HS classroom addition/auxiliary gym;
• Approved special lease agreements; and,
• Approved an attendance area map adjustment for a new neighborhood under construction.