After the Cobb County Board of Education voted 4-3 Feb. 17 to return to a traditional calendar for the next two school years, Post 5 board member David Banks has asked to scrap that decision with the first agenda item for today’s 8:30 a.m. monthly work session at the Central Office boardroom.
And beginning with today’s work session, Cobb residents can now watch the board in action as the meetings are now being streamed live online at www.cobbk12.org. As usual, it’s also televised live on Cobb edTV at Smyrna Charter channel 97 or Comcast channel 24.
In addition to the calendar issue that just won’t go away, the school board is also looking for creative ways to pay higher transportation expenses.
The Cobb County School District could save about $5 million in transportation costs next school year by strictly enforcing a rule that students must walk if they live within 1.5 miles of school, but Superintendent Fred Sanderson told the board during a budget work session Monday night that such a move would be a mistake.
His main concern is safety. He said the 1.5-mile rule dates to a time when Cobb County had far fewer people than its current 719,000. With the larger population, four- and five-lane highways run by several schools, making the path to school dangerous.
Another problem with enforcing the 1.5-mile rule, Sanderson said, is that school traffic would increase dramatically as more parents drove their children. The resulting congestion could force schools to stagger start times.
“We would be so inefficient we couldn’t get anything done,” Sanderson said.
Instead, Cobb buses pick up elementary school students living more than half a mile from school and middle and high school students living at least a mile away.
“I understand the challenges our Superintendent and School Board will face as they develop a balanced budget for the coming school year,’’ said Dr. Grant Rivera, the principal at Campbell High School. “Should the District choose to modify current policies regarding bus transportation, we will work with our families and community leaders to make the necessary changes to insure student safety and smooth traffic procedures in the area of the CHS campus.’’
To save money, the school system’s transportation department has tried to optimize routes for fuel efficiency, eliminating 8,000 bus stops and 50 buses the past couple of years. Buses make 5,000 runs a day.
The transportation budget is under pressure because fuel prices are rising as state funding is falling. After a decrease in state school transportation money from $6.8 million to $5.2 million, the school system anticipates an additional cut of $350,000.
With regards to the calendar issue, Banks stated his case in his monthly “Grapevine” e-newsletter for a return to this year's balanced calendar, which roughly divides the school year in half around the Christmas break, offers more weeklong vacations and starts the first week of August.
The 2010-11 school year is Cobb County's first use of the balanced calendar, which the school board voted in 2009 to adopt for three years. The board voted in favor of returning to the traditional calendar at its Feb. 17 meeting.
Opponents of the calendar change vowed immediately after the vote to mount a recall campaign against the four board members who pushed for the traditional calendar. One of those is newly elected Tim Stultz of Post 2, which covers Campbell High School, H.A.V.E.N Academy, Campbell, Floyd and Griffin Middle schools, Lindley 6th Grade Academy and Middle School, and Argyle, Belmont Hills, Brown, King Springs, Nickajack, and Teasley Elementary schools.
The balanced calendar would have made Aug. 1 the first day of school; now the first day will be Aug. 15. The meeting drew a vocal, overflow crowd, with shouts of “recall” after the final calendar vote.
A reversal of that vote appears unlikely because the three new board members all campaigned to return to a traditional calendar, and board member Alison Bartlett reiterated her support for that calendar during a town-hall meeting Thursday.
“People are very mad,” Banks said. “They changed the precedence so it can come up every month. It helps to know what you’re doing when you break precedence.
“One of our policies has a statement, I’m paraphrasing here, is that you’ll be responsive to the community. Well, I’m waiting for the response, or are they going violate that policy again? When you have over 70 percent of your constituents out there saying that they want the balanced calendar and you ignore it, that’s not being very accountable to your constituents.”
Bartlett noted that Banks or any board member can request to put any item on the agenda.
“We can vote as many times as we want on a subject,” said Bartlett, who voted against the balanced calendar when the previous board adopted it. “Typically when a person votes with the majority and discovers a new fact, they ask to put it on the agenda because the fact has changed their mind. But I’m not aware of any new fact at this time.”
During her town-hall meeting, Bartlett said a new fact could be on the way: She anticipates that the General Assembly will cut the number of mandatory school days to 170 or fewer, allowing the school district to add vacation days before Christmas and in February. The current mandate is 180 days, although the Cobb school district scheduled only 175 days this year because of budget problems and a state waiver involving time in the classroom instead of days.
In his newsletter, Banks wrote that he and other board members had “received over 2,000 e-mails with over 72 percent of those e-mails in favor of the ‘Balanced Calendar.’ ”
Banks told Patch he was able to determine the 2,000 figure because most of the e-mail messages were addressed to all board members.
Banks said the current balanced calendar will save the district $62,333 in utility costs, but Bartlett has said the district would save $500,000 in utility costs by starting two weeks later in August.
Banks also said more than $1 million in savings could be realized by the end of the school year because of reduced teacher absenteeism.
Bartlett questioned those savings on two grounds during her town-hall meeting. She said the district's savings are temporary because teachers accrue their sick leave and either use it or get paid for it in later years, and she said the experience of other school districts has been that teacher absenteeism returns to previous levels after the first year of the balanced calendar.
Because proponents of each calendar often provide contradictory figures, board member Lynnda Crowder-Eagle asked district Chief Financial Officer Mike Addison after Monday night’s board budget meeting whether the balanced or traditional calendar actually saves money.
“He said, ‘Lynnda, according to our data, there is no additional savings by going to a traditional calendar,’ ” Crowder-Eagle said.
Patch was unable to reach board members Stultz, David Morgan, Scott Sweeney, Kathleen Angelucci for comment.
The rest of the Wednesday agenda appears to be significantly less controversial. Besides discussing 14 SPLOST recommendations and a resolution, the board plans to discuss a memorandum of understanding between the district and Fulton County Schools regarding Cobb students attending charter schools in Fulton. The board voted 5-2 against the memorandum Feb. 17, with Stultz and Morgan dissenting.
The board plans to take a two-hour break at 11:30 a.m. to attend the annual PTA luncheon.
- Julie Paulk also contributed to this story.