Cobb school board passes Gold Dome wish list 5-2

Nov. 11—MARIETTA — The Cobb County School District passed its wish list for the upcoming Georgia legislative session Thursday over opposition from two Democratic board members.

At its work session Thursday afternoon, district staff presented three categories of legislative priorities to the board, which voted 5-2 that evening to approve the list, with Dr. Jaha Howard and Charisse Davis opposed.

The school board's vote is simply a list of recommendations. Each year, the district identifies legislation it would like to see passed, revised or voted down in the General Assembly and shares the list with local lawmakers.

Howard said he opposed the list because it did not include issues like dyslexia support training and literacy advocacy, issues he and Davis raised at the work session that were not added to the priorities before the regular meeting Thursday night.

"I think that the way we prioritize certain topics, I think there's room for adjustment there," Howard said.

Cobb schools Superintendent Chris Ragsdale said the district still advocates on all fronts involving Cobb students even if they are not on the priorities list, but Howard said it is a matter of whether the district wants to be the leader on advocating certain issues that were left off.

"We can choose to lead on the issue of dyslexia," Howard said. "In many years past, we've taken more of a passive approach, and I think there's a lot to learn from the educational environment. We can choose to literally have it as a bullet point on our priority list and lead from the front."

The district's legislative priorities fall under three categories: financial sustainability, educational access and accuracy in accountability.

The first item under finances is fighting the General Assembly's attempt to change the funding for Cobb's H.A.V.E.N. Academy and other schools under the Georgia Network of Educational and Therapeutic Support, or GNETS. H.A.V.E.N. serves students with severe emotional behavior disorders and autism.

District Compliance and Legislative Affairs Officer Gretchen Walton said the district succeeded in stopping the General Assembly from making the same change three days before the end of the previous legislative session.

The shift from a grant-based to full-time equivalent funding for the program would result in "a 70% reduction, 70, in our funding," Walton said.

Ragsdale called this priority "quite urgent" because of the potentially drastic reduction in funding.

"This is where the funding for H.A.V.E.N., a large portion of that comes from," Ragsdale said. "We also serve students from Marietta City as well as Douglas County School Districts."

Ragsdale said he has already asked Walton to engage lawmakers so they understand the impact, should they vote to change the funding method.

Another priority under financial stability would be opposition to the diversion of funds from public education.

"Essentially, this is the battle for vouchers that happens every year down underneath the Dome," Walton said.

Under educational access, priorities include a request to sustain the Teacher Retirement System of Georgia as is, an incentive for both teacher hiring and retention, according to Walton.

Other educational access items the board approved were advocating opportunities for more pathways to graduation, incentivizing higher education for teachers, and applying charter waivers to school systems, such as Cobb, which are not charter-only systems.

The items falling under accuracy in accountability include revising a law to require quarterly, instead of monthly, financial updates, and applying the same standards of accountability to all recipients of public education funding. The third item in this category was streamlining the complaint processes for a series of bills passed last legislative session dealing with parents' rights, divisive concepts and content deemed harmful to minors.

Ragsdale said all board members will be provided talking points for each priority on the list.

Howard said he supports changing the district's financial reports from a monthly basis to a quarterly one, but that this issue is not what he hears about from parents.

"I have not heard parents and taxpayers say, 'Oh my goodness I want to make sure that we get rid of this monthly report,' so if we are responding, when it comes to prioritizing our priorities, I have a hard time with the list that we have," he said.

Board Chair David Chastain weighed in on the debate before moving forward with the vote on the list.

"I feel like, just because it's necessarily on our agenda doesn't mean we don't care, but it also does not mean that it's not going to be addressed in this legislative session," Chastain said.