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School board pass tax rate hike

Dist. 5 BOE member Scott Higginbotham

The Grady County Board of Education Thursday morning voted unanimously to adopt a fiscal year 2011-2012 operating budget totaling $35,120,846, but the board was split on the 14.2 mill tax rate recommended to fund the budget.
Board member Scott Higginbotham, reading from a prepared statement, called on the board not to increase the millage rate.
The millage rate recommended by Superintendent Dr. Tommy Pharis represents an increase of 1.30 mills, but that will only generate an additional $10,930 in ad valorem tax revenue.
Higginbotham pointed to what he described as “failures” of the school system in his opposition to the tax increase.
“Three out of seven or 43 percent of our schools did not meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for 2011. We are not close to AYP at Cairo High School, where in my opinion our total body of work comes together as a school system,” Higginbotham said.
He noted that CHS did not meet AYP standards for academic performance or for graduation rate.
Because CHS has not met AYP in five years, Higginbotham claims the school system must offer public school choice and tutoring services.
The school is also now a state directed school, according to the Dist. 5 board member.
“What I believe is the ultimate telltale sign is the graduation rate. For 2011, the graduation rate was 73.6%. That is an 11% decrease from 2010. Yet we, as a board, as a superintendent, as central office management, as school administrators, and as a school system as a whole, want to ask for a 10% increase in millage rate. We have not earned the right to go to the producing citizens of Grady County and ask for a tax increase,” Higginbotham stated.
He went on to say, “If this were a private business, which I’m well aware it is not, we would have been out of business a long time ago. The finished product we are putting out, the public is not buying, as a whole.”
Everyone in the process has failed, according to the Dist. 5 school board member.
“We, the school system, from teachers to the five board members have failed. We have failed ourselves, we have failed the community and, worse than that, we have failed our future, which is our kids. This board can continue to rubber stamp these failures, or we can hold our own feet to the fire, starting today. As long as everything is rubber stamped by this board, we will not see our failures turn into successes. If we force change today, our failures will turn into a success,” Higginbotham said.
He ended by stating, “I will vote no on the millage increase, and I urge each of you to vote no and let us start down the path of success and achievement.”
Superintendent Pharis strongly disagreed with Higginbotham’s statement and responded, “I respectfully disagree with your entire statement. This school system is not a failing system and this board is not a rubber stamp board. This is an excellent school system.”
Vice Chairman Teresa Gee Harris also voiced opposition to Higginbotham’s statement and questioned if he fully understood the reason why the local schools had failed to meet AYP standards.
She also noted that she would not vote to place “a hardship on her constituents,” whom she described as “economically challenged,” but she also would not sacrifice their education by not funding the budget as recommended.
Higginbotham then clarified his statement and said, “I did not say the school system is a failure. What I said is we have failed. I do believe the graduation rate is a failure.”
Dr. Pharis attempted to respond to the issue of the CHS graduation rate, but Vice Chairman Gee Harris called for the question and the board voted 4-1 to set the millage rate at 14.2 mills.
“The graduation rate is not 73 percent,” Dr. Pharis said following the vote. He explained that due to possible clerical errors, 31 students who had transferred out of the system had been miscoded and were counted as dropouts. The superintendent noted that many of them had gone to other schools and have graduated.
CHS Principal David McCurry told The Messenger this week, “We believe there are some errors somewhere.”
McCurry says the statistics sent in to the state are conflicting with data on a Georgia Department of Education website (Longitudinal Data System).
“We’ve got Susan Poole, Bobbie Ausburn and Michael Best looking into it. We are baffled as to how it could have dropped when everything we’ve seen appeared to be in the 80 percent range. It could have dropped, but we are hoping there is an error somewhere,” McCurry said this week.
The school superintendent says he is not happy with the graduation rate, but he noted that even if an error is discovered and the rate is adjusted up, it would not change the high school’s AYP status.
With regard to public school choice, which Higginbotham mentioned in his statement, Dr. Pharis says that only 30 percent of Georgia’s high schools met AYP standards and that Thomas County Central, Thomasville High School, Bainbridge High School and Pelham High School all failed to meet AYP, so the public school choice options for CHS students would be extremely limited.
Under the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, local systems must provide in-county transportation for students who are eligible for public school choice, but since there is no other public high school in the county, students would have to apply to an out-of-county high school. Pharis says only Mitchell County High School made AYP this year.
Because of the high school not making AYP this year, it will fall under the state directed status. According to Dr. Pharis, the state will employ a person to come and work with the school administration and faculty two-and-a-half days a week to address the school’s weaknesses.
As a state directed school, CHS will be eligible for school improvement funding that will be used to hire a math coach, and state personnel will monitor the school improvement plan periodically, according to Dr. Pharis.
Washington Middle School had been a state directed school up until last year when the school had met AYP standards for two consecutive years.
Although the state has not notified Georgia schools that fall under the state directed category, Dr. Pharis acknowledges that CHS is one of those.

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