State school superintendent sees tougher times ahead

By Valerie Baldowski


School districts in Georgia will need to buckle down and prepare for more stringent budget cuts in the future, local Republicans were told Thursday.

State Superintendent of Schools Kathy Cox delivered the message during a meeting of Conservative Republican Women, held at the Golden Corral restaurant in McDonough. Cox is running for a third term as school superintendent.

The newly formed group, which had its second meeting Thursday, is headed by Sahar Hekmati, the former president of Republican Women of Henry County.

Cox discussed schools that were "top heavy," with too much money being spent on principals' and administrators' salaries, and how that impacts the overall school budgets.

"It's going to vary district to district," she said. "There are districts that are more top-heavy than others." However, she said some of the administrators, such as school employees responsible for removing disruptive children from the classroom, are necessary.

She praised the way Henry's schools are being managed. "Henry County is not a top-heavy district," she said. "Your per-pupil expenditures are the sixth lowest in the entire state.

"The education kids are getting here is incredible," she said. "You're doing an incredible job of educating all kids to high standards. It's why people want to live here."

Cox said the rocky economy, and the resulting need for state budget cuts, which trickle down to local school districts, is unusually severe. "It's bad ... It's nothing we've ever experienced in our lifetime," Cox told those in attendance. "No one in this room has experienced what our state's going through right now, and schools will be dramatically affected."

She warned of the possibility of drastic changes. "We're going to keep the focus on educating kids, but it's going to look different," she said. "We might have a four-day week ... We might have to go from 7:30 a.m., to 5:30 p.m."

She also said that teachers should be paid according to their performance, and that, despite budgetary constraints, students must be held to high academic standards.

The budget crisis, to which Cox referred, will be an increasing challenge for Henry schools, said Henry County School Superintendent Michael Surma, who said he attended the meeting to listen and gather information.

"It's impacted us this year already. In fact, this year, we've had a $10 million budget cut," he said. "Next year, we're working on a $45 million cut."

The result will mean reduced levels of services, and some programs will fall under the ax, Surma said. "We're not going to be able to provide all the services we've been able to provide before."

Surma also reacted to Cox's comments on high standards set for students in the state's school districts. "We have high expectations for our students, as far as the Georgia Performance Standards," he said. "Test scores remain high, and the county's high school graduation rate is at 80 percent."

Fifth-graders in Henry County taking the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, he said, score above 90 percent. Surma also said that local school systems need a certain amount of autonomy to successfully educate students.

"By the Constitution, the local school board is the elected group that should be able to operate that school system," he said. "That's one of the things that's very important."

Although the school system receives state and local funding, Surma said a school district has a responsibility to operate in the best interest of its employees, teachers, parents and students.

Sue Merchant, an attorney, and the public relations chairman for Conservative Republican Women, listened to Cox's address, and said afterward, that she agreed with much of what the state school superintendent had to say.

"I like the fact that she appreciated the fact that administration is necessary to deal with children to get them out of the classroom when they're being disruptive," said Merchant.

She said she agreed with Cox's opinions of "top-heavy schools." She also reacted to the superintendent's remarks on pay based on teacher performance. "I'm not sure I agree with that," she said, "but, at least, she's willing to talk about it."