School board candidates squared off at debates Thursday, ahead of a competitive May 20 primary likely to be settled based on controversial issues about funding, construction projects, and who is perceived as best able to solve the challenges facing public education in Cobb County.
Post 6 candidates Scott Sweeney and Kevin Nicholas, along with Post 4’s Bill Scott and David Chastain, spoke at a morning PTSA meeting at Sprayberry High School. At 6 p.m. a second forum was held at Hightower Trail Middle School. All the candidates are Republicans, and their races will be decided during the May 20 Republican primary.
Post 6 is an east Cobb seat with Walton and Wheeler as its high schools. Post 4 represents the northeast Cobb area, including Kell and Sprayberry high schools.
Kathleen Angelucci represents Post 4 now but is not seeking re-election. No Democrats are running, so the winner of the Republican primary will win the seat for the next four years.
Chastain and Scott were asked Thursday what the biggest difference is between them.
Both agreed it’s their history — Scott’s background is in education while Chastain’s is in business — but they differed on what that means for their candidacy and the job awaiting the ultimate winner of the school board seat.
Scott, former principal of Marietta Sixth Grade Academy, said his background is a strength.
“I feel that being an educator at this day and time is probably an advantage,” he said. “While I was never at the executive level of school administration, I was in a school which was a recipient of the decisions made by school boards, both good and bad. I have that experience.”
Not surprisingly, his opponent feels differently.
“I have an understanding of how businesses work,” said Chastain, an analyst for Lockheed-Martin. “Not everybody is going to be a gifted child who goes out and becomes a knowledge worker. School systems need to accommodate all the kids with all of their dreams and their parents’ dreams and have them go out and do whatever that is.”
Chastain talked about the different experiences of his three kids working through their own career paths.
Both also talked about how the Cobb schools budget might look over the next four years. For now, the days of furloughs and shortened school years appear to be over. Higher property values and more money from the state mean the Cobb County School District is looking to hire nearly 200 new teachers for the 2014-15 school year.
But $40 million of the state dollars are likely a one-time, election year gift from Gov. Nathan Deal. Both candidates said they were cautious about the future.
“I’m going to say the glass is half empty,” said Chastain. “I want to believe things will be better, but I want us to figure out where the rest of the water is coming from.”
Scott also said the district needs to be careful.
“School systems need ongoing support, not just during an election year,” he said. “We have to hold our legislators accountable. If we’re not taking care of our students today we’ll pay for it tomorrow. They are the future.”
The two also discussed construction priorities from 2015 to 2018.
“We need to continue to approve (education sales taxes) that allow us to take care of the mortar in our buildings,” Scott said.
Chastain said he’s more concerned with the quality of construction than the quantity.
“We’ve gone from 103,000 students to 109,000 students over the last 10 years,” he said. “Will we pick up another 6,000 or will the growth level off? That I don’t know. I do know I’ve been told we have aging schools that have not been addressed in the previous sales tax referendums. This needs to be addressed. We have some schools that have withstood the test of time, and we have younger structures that need more maintenance. We need to focus on the quality of construction because there’s not much more land out there to grab.”
Post 4 candidates did not participate in the Hightower Trail debate.
Post 6 candidates
Speaking at the Sprayberry event, Sweeney touted his accomplishments during his first term in office.
“In so many instances, I’m trying to find out what we can do to make an impact at the school level by getting to what’s happening across the state and other areas,” said Sweeney, who runs a consulting firm.
Sweeney said he was appointed by the Georgia School Boards Association as the 6th congressional district representative to the Federal Relations Network, among other appointments.
Sweeney also touted his work in persuading voters to pass the most recent 1-percent sales tax measure, which he said could have added $20 million to $50 million to the school system’s deficit this year if it wasn’t passed.
“I found out we had a ‘B’ rating in the Sunshine Awards,” he said of the rating by Sunshine Review, a citizens group that measures government transparency. “I got with the people that drove that group and said ‘There are things you need to know about the Cobb County School District,’ and through that we were able to achieve an A-plus rating.”
Nicholas, senior vice president of a telecommunications company, shared his own ideas about the role of a school board member.
“It comes down to my three kids and if I can make a difference for them and for other kids,” Nicholas said. “It’s about enabling kids.”
For seven years, Nicholas was a single parent before a marriage a few years ago, he said. He cited that experience, working on homework and interacting with teachers as something he can draw on as a school board member.
“I scratched my head a couple of times on how things are being handled,” Nicholas said. “That’s nothing against the teachers. I think we have some of the best teachers in the country. But our test scores have been flat over the years; in fact, they’ve been going down a little bit. Graduation rates have been flat, why is that?”
School systems need to be able to push down the decision making process, Nicholas said, which could include the school system becoming a charter system next year. While not fully endorsing the concept, Nicholas feels there is “a lot of merit to pushing decisions down.”
He also touted his work experience.
“There is about $40 million in one-time revenue in next year’s budget,” he said. “We’re blessed with a balanced budget, but what happens next year? What happens when it’s not an election year? I think I can bring some large company experience to look at that.”
Nicholas also applauded the school board’s decision to hire Chris Ragsdale as interim superintendent. The next school board will decide whether to keep Ragsdale long-term or hire a different superintendent after May 2015.
Nicholas also didn’t participate in the Hightower Trail debate. He pulled out of it after finding Facebook posts by its monitor, JoEllen Smith, saying she supports Sweeney.
Post 2 candidates
Post 2, a district covering the Smyrna/Vinings area, also is open this year. Incumbent Tim Stultz faces fellow Republicans Susan Thayer and Jeff Abel in the May 20 primary. The winner faces Democrat Kenya Pierre in the November general election. Because Thursday’s forums were for the east Cobb area, Post 2 candidates weren’t involved.
(Reprinted from the Marietta Daily Journal. Written by Haisten Willis, April 19, 2014. Read more: The Marietta Daily Journal – Funding crisis main focus of school debates)