The Cherokee County School Board on Thursday, June 17, 2021 unanimously approved its budget for next school year, which is balanced without a tax rate increase and includes hiring 125 new teachers above and beyond enrollment growth to help bridge any pandemic-related learning opportunity losses.
ANNUAL BUDGET AND EDUCATION SPLOST RENEWAL
For the 11th consecutive year, the School Board did not increase the millage rate, and a quarter of a mill was shifted from the operating fund to debt service to further reduce the need for future construction borrowing and associated interest costs.
The $567 Million budget reflects both a State education funding austerity cut of $9.4 Million and the addition of $15.7 Million in CARES II Federal funds allotted to CCSD in response to the pandemic’s impact on schools. The CARES funding will allow for CCSD to hire 125 teachers above and beyond enrollment growth needs to allow for lower class sizes and more individualized support.
Other highlights of the budget include salary increases for teachers and eligible support staff; the hiring of two additional school nurses, who will be stationed as second nurses at Cherokee HS and E.T. Booth MS, but also will act as permanent substitutes to be dispatched to any CCSD school in need; and additional teachers for Career, Technical and Agriculture Education, which is expanding next year with new classes including CCSD’s first cybersecurity electives.
The budget also includes funding for CCSD’s new i-Grad Virtual Academy, offering a permanent online school choice for high school students with 200 enrolled in the initial class; as well as for the continuation of the CCSD Digital Learning temporary online school choice for at least the first semester for 1,000 K-12 students. For the past school year, CCSD significantly increased its spending on custodial services to respond to COVID-19; while that cost may decrease next school year should infection numbers continue to decline, the budget calls for maintaining some additional staff to ensure schools stay clean and sanitized.
The School Board on Thursday also called for an election on Nov. 2 to allow voters to renew the current 1% Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. Ed SPLOST revenue is used to retire construction bond debt without the need for an automatic millage rate increase and allows for new construction projects, such as the proposed replacement Cherokee High School and proposed replacement Free Home Elementary School.
A contract for the purchase of land for the proposed replacement Free Home Elementary School was approved by the School Board on Thursday. The 40.7-acre site north of the intersection of Highways 20 and 372 and near the existing school site is being sold by the Cherokee County government to CCSD at a cost of $40,000 per acre for a total cost of $1.6 million. The new site was discussed in advance of the purchase with Free Home Elementary’s School Council, made up of parents and partners, and school staff and was met with strong approval.
Read more about the budget in the Financial Facts report posted online here.
DRESS CODE UPDATE
The School Board during Thursday’s meeting also approved the 2021-22 Code of Conduct for students, which includes significant changes to the dress code.
The changes, requested by School Board members, are designed to simplify the rules to increase understanding and adherence; make the dress code more equitable across genders; and set more specific guidelines to ensure the dress code is fairly enforced. You can review the updates to the dress code in the agenda item online here.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian V. Hightower said, after school resumes, he plans to convene an ad hoc committee made up of students, parents and staff to further review the dress code and propose any additional recommended changes.
School Board members heard from several public speakers about concerns that CCSD, during the 2021-22 school year, would continue the State-mandated precautionary quarantines of students and staff due to close contact with someone who has a positive diagnosis for COVID-19.
The mandated precautionary quarantines, which are required of all public schools by the Georgia Department of Public Health, currently can be avoided if a student or staff member is fully vaccinated. The quarantines also can be shortened through specific steps in regard to testing and mask usage.
Dr. Hightower said that he has shared CCSD’s data for the past school year with the Governor’s liaison to the Department of Public Health, which shows 22,915 close contact quarantines were required in CCSD, and that 182 of those later tested positive for COVID-19 (0.79%). Dr. Hightower also confirmed that he will be requesting the State end the mandated precautionary quarantines requirement for non-symptomatic students.
As soon as CCSD learns of any changes to the mandated precautionary quarantine requirements, that information will be shared with parents and employees, as updates have been shared over the past year.
SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL LEARNING
School Board members also heard from several public speakers with questions about CCSD’s Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) initiative. This initiative began in 2019 in response to rising numbers of students experiencing emotional and mental health issues including self-harm and suicidal ideations.
False information circulating in the community has led to the misconception that CCSD’s SEL initiative is connected to Critical Race Theory (CRT). CCSD’s SEL initiative is not connected to CRT, and the School Board at its May meeting took the step of approving a resolution prohibiting CRT, under that name of any other name, to make this distinction clear.
After hearing these speakers, School Board members asked Dr. Hightower for further explanation as to how CCSD works with vendors in regard to SEL.
As detailed in CCSD’s SEL plan, which was presented to the School Board in 2019 and shared with all parents and is posted on CCSD’s website online here, the initiative focuses on five core competencies for both students and employees: Self Awareness, Social Awareness, Responsible Decision Making, Self-Management and Relationship Skills. These five competencies were developed by the national Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). While CCSD uses CASEL’s core competencies as the foundation for its SEL initiative, CCSD does not follow other guidance developed by CASEL nor does CCSD use CASEL instructional resources.
CCSD for the past two school years has used some of the resources developed by 7 Mindsets to assist middle school counselors in SEL work, but CCSD has not used its resources in regard to social justice or other related topics, as those are not a part of CCSD’s SEL initiative. The resources also were piloted at three elementary schools (Ball Ground, Carmel, Free Home). During this time, CCSD also was developing its own SEL curriculum, and 7 Mindsets will not be used for next school year.
CCSD has used Panorama for an optional, anonymous survey of students to help guide the focus of future SEL lessons. For example, the survey data shows growth in areas including: how well students can persevere through setbacks to achieve important long-term goals; how well students consider the perspectives of others and empathize with them; and how well students deliberately use strategies to manage their own learning processes generally. Parents can opt their child out of surveys and are given opportunities to do so.
The Panorama survey is not the same as the State-mandated Georgia Student Health Survey, contrary to some public speakers’ comments. The State survey, which also is optional, is used as part of its determination of a school’s and School District’s climate score and which factors into a school and School District’s College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI) score. It asks students questions about topics such as alcohol and drug use, bullying and harassment, suicide, and other behaviors. CCSD also administers an optional Sources of Strength survey for select middle school and high school students on these topics, and the survey includes encouragement to contact school counselors if they want counseling help. Parents can opt their child out of surveys and are given opportunities to do so.
Additionally, misinformation was circulated in the community about the capacity for the School Board meeting and safety protocols. Seating at the meeting allowed for 210 audience members, and 50 available seats were vacant throughout the meeting; the meeting also was live streamed, as have all School Board meetings for the past year. A designated area also was set up in the parking lot to accommodate any peaceful assembly, but no parents chose to use it. No one was refused admittance to the meeting.
The School Board also:
• Held a moment of silence in honor of Holly Springs Police Department Officer Joe Burson, who was killed in the line of duty on Wednesday night;
• Recognized CCSD's 2020-21 Piedmont Regional & Georgia State Technology Competition Champions;
• Recognized CCSD staff Selected as Cherokee County Chamber of Commerce "Top 10 in 10" Honorees;
• Recognized CCSD Department of Special Education Employees of the Year Award winners;
• Recognized CCSD’s 2021 Coach of the Year and Innovation Zone Coaches of the Year;
• Recognized CCSD’s Positive Athlete Georgia Regional winners;
• Recognized CCSD's Georgia High School Association State and Regional Champions;
• Approved the renewal of Partnership Agreements with Chattahoochee Technical College and Credit Union of Georgia;
• Approved the first reading of School Board Policy updates;
• Approved monthly financial reports;
• Approved the local plan for improvement of Career, Technical and Agricultural Education and one-year State funding application for the 2021-22 school year;
• Approved out-of-state and overnight field trips requests for students;
• Approved out-of-state travel requests for employees;
• Approved the monthly Capital Outlay Projects update;
• Approved special lease agreements;
• Approved a resolution certifying the closeout of construction of the Creekview HS agri-science lab;
• Approved the monthly personnel report, including the appointment of Joan Dillon as a coordinator for CCSD’s Transportation department. Ms. Dillon joined CCSD in 2012 as a school bus driver and advanced in 2016 to serve as a specialist overseeing routing, timekeeping and customer service responsibilities.
The next meeting is Thursday, July 15, 2021.