In a work session that stretched past 4 hours Monday night, the Muscogee County School Board heard the district’s dropout recovery program concluded a successful inaugural year, and board members came closer to agreeing on a public participation policy, but they again disagreed about the format of next fiscal year’s proposed budget after no citizens spoke during the budget’s public hearing.
The district’s dropout recovery program’s 2015 graduation rate of 73 percent (58 of the 80 seniors) is the highest in the state among the locations Catapult Academy administers, program supervisor Jimmy King told the board. Catapult also has sites in Albany and Thomasville, although their graduation rates weren’t provided. In fact, King said, 60 of the program’s 119 graduates in Georgia are from Muscogee County, including two who entered the program below 12th grade.
MCSD superintendent David Lewis recalled one of the graduates was in tears as he thanked him at the ceremony. “His lifelong desire was to join the Air Force, and, of course, without a regular diploma he was not able to do that,” Lewis said. “He said the very next day he was going to enlist in the Air Force.”
Lewis added, “These students aren’t just getting by. One young lady got a full scholarship to Florida A&M as a result of completing the program in such an honorable fashion. These are students who are taking advantage of a second opportunity.”
The most recent statistics from the Georgia Department of Education, from 2014, show Muscogee County’s graduation rate of 76.6 percent surpasses the state average of 72.5 percent.
Catapult Academy, with a combined 23 sites in Florida and Georgia, is located in Columbus at the former Edgewood Elementary School, 3835 Forrest Road, which also houses the Muscogee County School District’s AIM Program, an alternative center for students who have been temporarily removed from their school for violating rules.
Catapult is open to Muscogee County residents ages 16-20 who have dropped out of school and aren’t enrolled in the district. Students with disabilities and younger than 22 also are eligible. Participants must have a valid government-issued photo ID, birth certificate and Social Security card.
After they apply and are accepted, academy students can choose one of two five-hour sessions: 7 a.m. to noon or noon to 5 p.m. Approximately 80 percent of the instruction is conducted online and 20 percent from a teacher in the classroom.
The program is not only free to the students but also budget neutral for the district because, when dropouts return to school, the district recaptures lost state funding based on enrollment. MCSD pays Catapult Academy $309,600 with money from that new revenue. The rate ranges between $3,596 and $6,994 per student, according to the contract, depending on the program model and whether English language or special-education support is required.
District 8 representative Frank Myers on Friday submitted an alternative to the proposed revisions to the policy regulating public participation in meetings, which the board has been debating for several months. Monday, he was pleasantly surprised to see another update from the administration reflecting the consensus of the board’s input, although he wasn’t completely satisfied.
The consensus proposed revisions have struck the requirement for a citizen to address an agenda item only. It now states citizens can address the board in general. Citizens also would 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.
Myers praised those suggestions but insisted on this sentence being 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 wants 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.”
The board is scheduled to vote on the two versions at next Monday’s meeting, which will start at 6 p.m.
The administration’s recommended fiscal year budget of $268,746,786 is an increase of $4,029,176 (1.52 percent), including $2.7 million in raises or bonuses for 77 percent of the 3,900 full-time employees. MCSD human resources chief Kathy Tessin revised that estimate after initially telling the Ledger-Enquirer 30-40 percent of the full-time employees would receive an increase. She explained that she misunderstood the question and the previous estimate didn’t include teachers.
A half dozen citizens sat in the front row with T-shirts declaring, “I HAVE FULL CONFIDENCE IN DR. DAVID LEWIS” in reaction to Myers and another newly elected representative, John Thomas of District 2, criticizing the administration. The latest brouhaha is over the budget’s format. Myers and Thomas contend the budget should be presented in a line-item document instead of a summary.
Last Monday, Myers had board secretary Karen Jones project on the boardroom’s screen the line-item budget from Douglas County, which amounted to 357 pages, compared to MCSD’s budget notebook containing 37 pages.
Lewis said he emailed the extra detail Friday to board members who requested it (Myers, Thomas and Kia Chambers, the board’s other newly elected member and the lone county-wide representative), then a subsequent email to all board members with year-over-year data, but Myers and Thomas argued Monday that the format still isn’t acceptable.
“What you’ve given me most recently is spreadsheets with plugged-in numbers,” said Thomas, an Internal Revenue Service agent.
Board vice chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1 and Naomi Buckner of District 4 said they met with MCSD chief financial officer Theresa Thornton to learn how to understand the budget printout of about 800 pages. Chambers passed that hunk of paper down the board table to Thomas and said, “It’s important that we’re all looking at the same information.”
Myers interjected, “We are in a technological age, and the idea that somebody would print off 800 pages of documents for you to look at when the last time we were here we looked at Douglas County’s detailed budget, on this flash drive, of 357 pages. Folks, that needs to raise a red flag with you. I’ve got the flash drive right here. Ms. Thornton, would you please just take this up to your office and burn that line-item budget onto this flash drive so we can get on with this?”
Green intervened, “It’s important that we be respectable to each other.”
Myers continued, “Would you allow that, Mr. Superintendent?”
“I’d be happy to,” Lewis said, “but you already have it.”
Lewis added that it’s in a slightly different format than Douglas County.
“There’s one of two things going on here, folks,” Myers said. “They don’t want the scrutiny, they don’t want accountability, or they’re hiding something or possibly some things.”
Chairman Rob Varner of District 5 heard enough. “It’s irresponsible and unprofessional for you to suggest there’s something untoward going on. The only thing that this staff has done is work tirelessly for hours and hours and hours and days and days and days to respond to every request by this board, and I don’t know what else she can give you.”
“I just told you,” Myers said, again asking Thornton to take his thumb drive. Nobody responded.
The board is scheduled to vote on final adoption of the budget during its monthly meeting next Monday.