In a 7-2 vote Monday night, the Muscogee County School Board approved its fiscal year 2016 budget of $268,746,786, an increase of $4,029,176 (1.52 percent), including $2.7 million in raises or bonuses for 77 percent of the approximately 3,900 full-time employees.
But the discussion again focused more on the form of the budget rather than its function.
Board newcomers John Thomas of District 2 and Frank Myers of District 8 cast the opposing votes. Thomas, an Internal Revenue Service agent, insisted this past month that the various ways the administration presented the budget to the board continued to fall short of the line-item format he requested. As board members arrived for Monday night's meeting, MCSD chief financial officer Theresa Thornton delivered printed copies of a 72-page, spiral-bound collection of documents, including line items, plus a five-page summary. That detail wasn't available to the public on the electronic agenda, but Thornton gave the Ledger-Enquirer a copy after the meeting.
"This is the detail I've been looking for all along," Thomas said. He asked why it wasn't presented that way to the board last month. Thornton explained the district's financial software system didn't allow it, but her staff worked for hours to put it in the current format.
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"Folks, we're getting the information 10 minutes before we're supposed to take this vote on a quarter of a billion dollar budget, the most important thing we do as board members," Myers said, adding that he asked Thomas whether he was satisfied. "The answer from John is, 'I'm not sure. I haven't had time to read it.' Folks, that ain't how government works - or not how it's supposed to work - and, in fact, it's the reason this government is not working, as much as a lot of you don't want to hear it."
Board vice chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1 and Naomi Buckner of District 2 have contended the information has been available all along, if they took time to visit with Thornton to get the budget format explained. Athavia "A.J." Senior of District 7 also noted "some members" missed the board's training on the budget.
Five years ago, the Georgia Legislature passed a state law that in part requires public school districts to choose for the first time one of three options for governance. The deadline is June 30.
The choices are:
Investing in Educational Excellence (also called IE2 and Strategic Waivers). An IE2 district has a performance contract with the Georgia Board of Education granting the district freedom from specific provisions of state education law, state board rules and state education department guidelines in exchange for increased accountability.
Charter System. A Charter System applies for a charter from the state board and is granted freedom from almost all of the above in exchange for increased academic accountability and approved innovations, including local governing bodies for each school, which still report to the district's school board but have input into decisions.
Status Quo (also called No Waivers). Status Quo districts have chosen to not request increased flexibility so they don't have increased accountability and instead remain under all state laws, rules, regulations, policies and procedures.
As of Monday afternoon, according to Georgia Department of Education data, MCSD was one of only 15 districts out of the 180 in the state yet to choose a form of governance. Harris County also hasn't decided.
Chattahoochee County is among the 117 districts to select IE2; 47 picked Charter; and just one district, Webster County, opted for Status Quo.
Monday night, the MCSD board unanimously approved superintendent David Lewis' recommendation to send the state DOE a letter of intent to become an IE2 district while still exploring the Charter option.
Lewis told the Ledger-Enquirer after the meeting that IE2 is less "disruptive" than the Charter system but still gives the district the waivers it needs from regulations, such as class sizes. Lewis plans to have a final application at the end of this calendar year, to go into effect starting in the 2016-17 school year. Board chairman Rob Varner of District 5, who was leaning toward the Charter system, told the Ledger-Enquirer he changed his mind after thinking more about it. "The thing about Charter, particularly in a school system our size, you would have to set up 52, 54 mini boards of education, and that could be terribly cumbersome."
The board unanimously approved Lewis' recommendation to hire two principals from outside Georgia:
Yvette Scarborough to be principal at Fox Elementary School. She comes from Polk County (Fla.) Public Schools, where Lewis was an associate superintendent before the MCSD board hired him in July 2013. According to the agenda, in Scarborough's 21-year career as an educator, she led initiatives as assistant principal at Horizons Elementary from 2009-12, when the school improved from a state-issued grade of a D to a B. She then was appointed principal of Horizons and most recently was principal at Churchwell Elementary. As a recipient of a federal school improvement grant, Fox's selection of its principal must include a representative from the Georgia Department of Education. Scarborough replaces Tujuana Wiggins, who was transferred to Downtown Elementary, from where Tonya Douglass was transferred to succeed the retiring Shiann Williamson at Waddell Elementary.
Sadiyah Abdullah to be principal of Lonnie Jackson Academy. She also is a 21-year educator. Her most recent position was administrative assistant principal for District 5 in Lexington and Richland County in South Carolina. As a principal for Guilford County (N.C.) Schools from 2005-10, according to the agenda, she led her school's turnaround effort out of state sanctions. Abdullah replaces Ramona Horn, who was transferred to Baker Middle, from where Tamura Magwood was transferred to East Columbus Magnet Academy, succeeding Kevin Scott, who left the district to be an administrator for Atlanta Public Schools.
Fox and Lonnie Jackson are two of MCSD's 10 schools out of 141 on Georgia's failing list and would be at risk for state takeover if the state constitutional amendment scheduled for the November 2016 ballot were in effect now. The other MCSD schools on the failing list are Baker Middle School and Davis, Dawson, Forrest Road, Georgetown, Martin Luther King Jr., Rigdon Road and South Columbus elementary schools.
After several months of debate, the board unanimously approved the superintendent's recommendations, based on the board's input, to revise the policy regulating the public's participation at board meetings. The revisions struck the requirement for a citizen to address an agenda item only. It now states citizens can address the board in general. Citizens have more time to get on the agenda, by the close of business Friday instead of seven days before the Monday meeting or work session.
Acknowledging "we've made a lot of progress," Myers withdrew his alternative proposal, which suggested this sentence be added to the policy:
"No one is vested with the authority to deny a citizen their right to address the Muscogee County School Board provided the citizen has satisfied the notice requirements referenced in this policy."
He also wanted the policy to state that citizen requests to address the board should be emailed to not only the superintendent but also the board secretary, "who shall immediately notify all board members that such a request has been made."
Myers said, "Anyone who wants to speak, as long as I'm on the school board, they're going to speak."
Lunch price increase
The board unanimously approved the superintendent's recommendation to increase the lunch price by 5 cents, from $2.05 to $2.10 at elementary schools and from $2.30 to $2.35 at middle schools and high schools.