The gloves are off in the Legislature where lawmakers are going after a school district and board they perceive as hostile to charter schools.
What’s surprising to me is that they are going after Cherokee, a system that is among the state’s high performers and where the majority of parents would probably express confidence in the schools. That does not mean all parents are happy, but Cherokee has an enviable record of achievement.
House Bill 978 would realign the Cherokee county school board and effectively remove the elected school board chair and vice chair, according to the Cherokee Tribune. Now, the school board has seven members elected county-wide and members elect their own chair and vice chair.
An angry Cherokee Superintendent Frank R. Petruzielo is firing back at lawmakers, and he is not mincing his words about what he deems their lack of support for the schools and their efforts to undermine them:
Cherokee County Legislative Delegation members, who frequently extol “local control” as a value of their political ideology, have introduced legislation (HB 978) that will significantly limit voters’ ability to elect members of the Cherokee County School Board, despite input collected by the Cherokee County School District from thousands of citizens through a survey open to the entire community and a series of public meetings indicating that the vast majority prefer the current methodology of electing all seven School Board members countywide.
This ill-advised legislation makes it clear that our State lawmakers believe they know better than Cherokee’s registered voters and the School Board what is best for this community’s public schools… despite the fact that none of these legislators have children enrolled in our schools. Parents of the 38,600 students whose children are educated within the CCSD should question why State lawmakers want to reduce the number of School Board members for whom they can vote… from seven representatives down to two!
We have heard vague reasoning that this change would make things “easier.” Easier for whom? The current methodology is absolute — every citizen can vote for every School Board member; it does not matter where a line has been drawn by the Delegation. Maybe it would make it “easier” to run for office in a small segment of the county; but that should be the last consideration.
The fact is: the Delegation knows it is difficult to unseat School Board members who are proven champions for public education through a legitimate political challenge at the ballot box; so they have chosen to usurp the power of the people and simply draw School Board members who refuse to bend to their will out of their posts.
Long gone are the days when the Delegation supported and advocated for our award-winning, high-performing schools and School District. They have stood idly by while the State has cut $118 Million of our State-earned funding over the last seven years; while teachers have been furloughed and class sizes have had to grow larger every year; and while funding for textbooks, school nurses and transportation are whittled away. Instead of supporting and helping their community’s public schools, they have actively pursued and advocated for vouchers, private school “scholarships,” for-profit charter schools and various other efforts that continue to shift funding and local control away from one of the highest-performing public school districts in the State and Nation!
Regarding the new post boundaries created by the Delegation as part of HB 978, we have serious concerns about the impact on the community and the future equity of education in CCSD. Residents “below the Sixes line” will have the ability to control the election of five of the seven seats on the School Board – returning the county to the dysfunctional North vs. South political system of its past. Additionally, two of this area’s mega neighborhoods – Towne Lake and BridgeMill – each are split between two posts, giving them the opportunity to each decide two post elections, as well as make a major impact on the chairman election. Additionally, the four southern posts and two northern posts reflect major disparity as it relates to racial and socio-economic diversity; and all of the posts are significantly varied as far as population – one post has 686 more people than the targeted one-sixth of the county’s population.
It’s clear from reviewing the new post boundaries that deliberate gerrymandering efforts were made in order to draw two incumbents up for re-election this year – Chairman Mike Chapman and Vice Chairwoman Janet Read – into posts with incumbents not up for re-election, thus precluding Chapman and Read from running for post seats on the School Board. Their residences are on the edges of boundaries, and those posts’ boundaries were drawn without respect to standard principles of reapportionment… including setting equal populations, keeping precincts and communities intact, using geographical boundaries and making efforts “to avoid the unnecessary pairing of incumbents.”
In drafting HB 978, the Delegation disregarded input from the true community survey conducted by CCSD and the map drafted by CCSD and approved by the School Board. Instead, the Delegation funded a political organization, Grassroots Conservatives of Cherokee County – already known to oppose the current governance model and impacted incumbents — to conduct an unverifiable “poll,” the results of which the Delegation touts in its press release as evidence of community support. When a majority of those in attendance at a town hall meeting called by the Delegation didn’t voice support for change, the Delegation appointed a Blue Ribbon Committee in an effort to create more “evidence” in its favor, and when the Committee didn’t vote the way it wanted… a new vote with a different result was required! All of this is a slap in the face to the School Board and community after members of the Delegation told local media they would not make any changes to the governance model unless the School Board requested it.
The future quality of education in Cherokee County is endangered by the Delegation’s actions; and it is my sincere hope that its members will rethink this politically motivated, ill-advised legislation for the sake of our community’s children.
This is my personal opinion; it is not necessarily the opinion of the Cherokee County School Board.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled board