In Post 1, incumbent Lamar Grizzle is being challenged by John Howard, while Post 2 board member Roger Maier, vying to remain on the board after winning his first four-year term in 2006, faces opposition from former Bartow County Schools superintendent Davis Nelson. Angie Cornett and David Palmer are seeking the Post 3 seat that will be vacated by Matt Shultz when his term ends in December.
Panelist Jon Gargis, representing The Daily Tribune News, and Cady Schulman with AM 1450 WBHF asked the candidates a number questions, including if those seeking their first terms on the board would have chosen to reduce staff and instructional time as opposed to raise property taxes, as the current board recently did.
Grizzle, an educator who is seeking his third consecutive four-year term, said Superintendent John Harper recommended the board reduce staff instead of raise the millage rate as a result of a "dramatic" reduction in funding.
"We do not do anything on the board unless the superintendent recommends it," Grizzle said. "His staff reviewed and looked at ways to cut costs, and they recommended to cut staff rather than raise the millage rate. ... You do what is most efficient for a business operation, and it is a business. It's a business educating children and you have to do what you have to do to do what's best for the students and the staff in the school system."
His challenger, Howard, who owns and operates a mechanical contracting company, said he believes the current board's decision to layoff teachers was justified.
"I know when times are good, you hire a number of people to fill positions ... when money is tight, you get back to bare bones. ... You either cut people or raise taxes and in this economy, neither one is good. I think that I would have felt the need to address all the personnel issues, because obviously the budget is mostly personnel issues, try to hold the millage rate where it's at now and if I can't do that anymore, then we would have to find other ways. And if we can't do that anymore, in order to maintain the school system that Bartow County needs to have, then at that time I would address raising the millage rate."
Responding to a question about the current board's recent decision to trim the number of instructional days by three to deal with funding cuts, Nelson said he is a proponent of maintaining the traditional 180 instructional days.
"You have to look at the top down, the farthest away from the classroom is where you make the most cuts so you salvage the classroom and you support instruction that's going on in the classroom where it happens directly from the classroom teacher. I can't second-guess the decision of the board. They are privy to far more information," Nelson said, adding as superintendent, he never recommended a budget including a property tax increase.
Maier said the board's decision reduced the number of instructional days, but a corresponding measure lengthened the school day, adding he favors a later starting date.
"Most of our school calendar is dictated by state mandates, such as testing times, so we're limited with what we can do with the school calendar," Maier said. "What I'm for is having the most quality instructional time for our kids. ... We didn't shorten the instructional time, we just shortened the calendar days."
Revenue shortfalls also led to the elimination of middle school Spanish teachers and elementary-level technology teachers. Cornett said the technology room is still in place at elementary schools, and other teachers can instruct children using it.
"The Spanish program in the middle school, I was not happy about that. A college prep program, you need two years of Spanish in high school to get that diploma, and I feel like at the middle school, they needed to at least be introduced to that. Where would I have changed that? I don't know. I would have had to have sat down with the superintendent and other board members and look over the budget clearly and see where was the less impact on our student instruction."
Palmer, who has served on several school councils, said to approach the budget crunch as a conservative, board members should prioritize greatest needs, "placing them on top and cut from the bottom." He later added that there may be too much technology in earlier grades.
"We need to get back to the basics and that would be reading, writing and arithmetic and the truth in history," Palmer said. "Maybe a little bit of that can be done utilizing computer systems, but basically we need to improve the reading skills of our children. ...
"The kids are quite capable regarding technology. They get plenty of that at home with their parents' cell phones and the computers, in most cases."
House Bill 251
Grizzle, currently chairman of the school board, and former Gainesville City Board of Education member Kelvin Simmons filed in January a lawsuit contesting the constitutionality of a provision dealing with school board elections. Under Georgia Code 20-2-51(c), which was established under Georgia House Bill 251, passed last year by the state General Assembly, "no person who has an immediate family member sitting on a local board of education or serving as the local school superintendent or as a principal, assistant principal, or system administrative staff in the local school system shall be eligible to serve as a member of such local board of education." Immediate family is defined as "a spouse, child, sibling, or parent or the spouse of a child, sibling, or parent."
Grizzle was impacted by the election rule as his daughter, Kimberly Ruff, serves as assistant principal of Pine Log Elementary.
An April order issued by U.S. District Judge Harold L. Murphy granted an injunction against the election restriction, allowing Grizzle to qualify for this year's election. Legal representation for Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp filed in May an appeal to Murphy's injunction, and proceedings in the lawsuit continue.
The board in January unanimously voted to financially support Grizzle's suit. Board Attorney Boyd Pettit at that time said the district's cost to join the lawsuit had been estimated at $15,000 to $17,000.
"The legislation that was proposed was illegal to begin with and it also discriminated against employees," Grizzle said. "It was not only my lawsuit, but also [that of] the Bartow County Board of Education and everyone else in the state. ... Restitution will be made to our school board. Where that comes from is the state or it should come from legislators that did this.
"The bill is not only discriminatory against the employees ... it discriminates against anyone from having upgrades, going into administration, it was very unclear and it's really not constitutional. We already have nepotism policies in place, the state school board has it and I don't see that it would be necessary for our legislatures to try to detail it the way they have," Grizzle added.
Howard pointed to the measure's apparent aim at providing checks and balances on superintendents, to prevent the board from rubber-stamping his or her decisions, but said taxpayer money should not have been used.
"I feel [Grizzle] had every right to file suit if he felt it was unconstitutional for him to [be prevented from running] for the position he held just because his daughter was serving," Howard said. "I do not feel that if its only going to support him, the money should have been used to do such a thing. I think that should have been looked into a little further before the board was presented that information."
Maier supported the lawsuit, and said House Bill 251 is unconstitutional and prevents teachers and administrators from improving themselves, reiterating the school system would not lose money on the challenge.
"As you know, in this community, most of us at some point are going to have a relative working in the school system," Maier said. "Why would we want to limit the great talent we have, and preventing them from getting a promotion if they've got a family member sitting on the board, or kick out a board member that was voted in because they wanted the best person there?"
But Nelson, who later addressed Maier's question about his former tenure as superintendent, said current board members should have been grandfathered.
"Those board members should have been grandfathered in and once that seat was given up and any future people should have to abide by the law, and that's the way most laws are put into place," Nelson said, later adding, "I think any time a legislator introduces legislation, they think it's a good law but only time bears out whether that is true or not. The effort was to ensure employees are not given special treatment. You do have five board members and not one board member, so hopefully that would prevent any situation like that."
While Palmer said Grizzle's "personal lawsuit should have never been funded with taxpayer money," Cornett said she believes the law is unconstitutional.
"I have concerns whether it is discriminating, however, board members have previously said taxpayers will be refunded this and as a board member, I'll hold them accountable to that," Cornett said.
Cornett and Palmer exchange questions
In questioning his opponent, Palmer asked Cornett why she was running as a Republican but voted Democratic in prior years. Her response was that she did not agree with former president George W. Bush's "war views."
Cornett also had a question for Palmer -- How Palmer, who home schools his children, would be an asset to the board?
His answer: I'm a taxpayer and qualified to represent people in the community, whether they have children in the school system or not.