City DopeNews

School Board Approves Budget, Discusses New Approach to Discipline

School board president LaKeisha Gantt.

The Clarke County school board nearly deadlocked on a property-tax rate last week, which could have left school district finance officials just days to revise CCSD’s $189 million budget.

The board initially voted 4–4 on the district’s proposed tax rate of 18.8 mills, 1.2 mills lower than it’s been since at least 2017. President LaKeisha Gantt and members Kirrena Gallagher, Nicole Hull and Mumbi Anderson voted no; Linda Davis, Patricia Yager, Kara Dyckman and Tawana Mattox voted yes; and Greg Davis resigned last month. Gantt said she wanted a higher millage rate of 19 mills to fund higher raises for low-paid staff, while Anderson said she wanted the rate cut further to offset skyrocketing property values for homeowners.

The board voted again at the June 2 meeting after CCSD attorney Michael Pruett told members that they had no choice but to pass a millage rate by June 7. That’s the date when the Athens-Clarke County Commission was scheduled to vote on its own millage rate and CCSD’s—a formality, but a legal requirement nonetheless. He also reminded the board that the entire budget would have to be redone if the millage rate were lower or higher than the recommended 18.8 mills.

“As public officials, you’re charged with making a budget, figuring out how much money you need, then setting a millage rate that’s sufficient to fund that budget,” Pruett said. “You don’t set the millage rate and then figure out how to spend the money.”

After a motion from Hull to set the millage rate at 19 failed to gain a second, the 18.8-mill tax rate passed 7–1, with only Gallagher in opposition.

CCSD’s 2023 budget is $18 million higher than this year’s. Much of the additional funding is going toward raises for teachers and staff, especially the lowest-paid staff, who will make at least $12.50 an hour. Chief Human Resources Officer Selena Blankenship has said that minimum wage could be raised to $15 using reserves, which currently stand at $49 million. The district is also adding a family engagement specialist at each school.

The rollback will save taxpayers $7 million compared to keeping the millage rate at 20 mills, the maximum allowed by state law, according to Chief Financial Officer Byron Schuneman. However, the average property owner will pay about 10% more than last year. “Just the nature of property values, some property owners will see an increase and some will not,” he said at a May budget hearing. “Some will see a greater increase than others.”

While dozens of speakers lined up to ask the Athens-Clarke County government to either boost spending or cut property taxes during budget hearings last month, the school board heard formally from just one resident—even though school taxes make up about 60% of property owners’ tax bills and about 60% of the funding for local schools.

The millage rate vote came only after the board had already approved the budget itself by a 6–2 vote. Gallagher and Linda Davis voted against the budget after Davis raised last-minute concerns about the definition of community schools and the district’s application to the state Department of Education to renew its status as a charter district, which allows CCSD some leeway from state regulations in exchange for meeting certain goals. 

Davis said she recently learned that “community schools” are part of a national movement to “replace failing public schools” and that the board should vote on whether CCSD wants to be part of that movement. “I think it’s changing the strategic direction, and we need further exploration of that,” Davis said.

Yager, Dyckman and Anderson pushed back. The board has already approved a five-year charter district renewal application that “exactly mimics our strategic plan,” Yager said, including references to community schools. “I don’t know what the organization Community Schools is. It has the same name?” she said. “Our [June 2021] presentation on community schools focused on the connection between communities and schools, which we’ve all agreed is a good thing.”

There is a national organization called the Coalition for Community Schools, which defines them as “a public school—the hub of its neighborhood, uniting families, educators and community partners as an evidence-based strategy to promote equity and educational excellence for each and every child, and an approach that strengthens families and community.”

The board also heard an update on efforts to implement restorative justice, an approach to school discipline that focuses on resolving conflicts and making amends rather than punishment.   

Although the Athens-based Georgia Conflict Center is already providing restorative justice services in three schools, CCSD has hired the International Institute of Restorative Practice to train groups of 20 staff members who will then train others within their schools, starting with pilot programs in grades 3,5,6,8,9 and 10 at 11 pilot schools.

“IIRP allows us to do the train-the-trainer model, which allows us to infiltrate our district a little quicker than the work we’re doing with GCC,” Director of Restorative Discipline Utevia Tolbert told the board. “That’s not to say GCC isn’t able to do that, that’s just not what’s happening right now”

Discipline problems have become particularly acute since students returned to buildings after spending parts of 2020 and 2021 learning online. “Fourth and fifth grades were hot spots. Ninth and 10th grade were hot spots,” Executive Director of Student Support Services Jillian Whatley said. “And that’s not just CCSD. We’re looking at national trends as well.”

Those years are always transitional years for students, and that’s been compounded by being away from school buildings. Current 7th- and 10th-graders may have entered their schools physically for the first time this year. “There are basically two classes of freshmen, and now we have to train them to be high-schoolers,” Tolbert said.

Restorative justice in many cases replaces traditional discipline measures like in-school and out-of-school suspension with strategies for classroom management, restorative circles, conferences to “help students articulate what they’ve done wrong and help them to repair it,” restart centers where upset students can calm down or talk to a counselor, Saturday classes, restorative plans to welcome back those students who are suspended, gang and drug prevention seminars, advocates for students in the juvenile court system and other measures, according to Tolbert and Whatley. 

But it’s more than just a set of tactics, Tolbert said. “It’s a basic set of principles we want to embed in our culture,” she said. “It’s not a program. It’s not a curriculum we want to use to change behavior. It’s practices we want to embed in our everyday walk in schools.”

In addition, a committee is revising the discipline manual to make definitions of infractions and consequences clearer for parents. “My definition of a fight and your definition of a fight might be very different, so we want to make sure everyone is on the same page,” Tolbert said.