COVINGTON — Candidates for the three vacant seats on the Newton County Board of Education addressed a packed meeting room at the Newton County Library Thursday night as part of the Covington Newton County Chamber of Commerce's primary candidates forum.
Nine of the 11 candidates for the District 1, 3 and 5 seats on the school board participated in the forum. Present were District 3 candidates — Republican Kevin Wade and Democrats Christine Brown, Pamela Byrd Consuegra, Shakila Henderson-Baker and James Johnson Jr.; Toney D. Collins was absent. Also present were District 1 candidates — Republicans Ron Hart, Jeff Meadors and Dale Thompson — and District 5 Republican candidate Abigail Morgan Coggin; District 5 Democrat candidate Sharon Sawyer did not attend.
Among, the questions asked was, "How do you anticipate, with state and local revenue reductions, to propose to balance the budget if you are elected?"
The candidates said that the Newton County School System has not received millions of dollars from the state that it has been owed according to a state formula, but that the budget still had to be balanced each year.
Many candidates agreed that lobbying at the state level by school board members needed to continue.
"It starts up there, so we gotta start from there," Baker said, adding that they also could work with the state and national education associations.
Coggin further added that business leaders and community members should lobby for education too, mainly suggesting that the state give more local control and access to funds, such as SPLOST money that can only be spent on capital projects. She also suggested turning to the Chamber and other organizations that are involved in the local leadership collaborative.
"We've got to make it clear that this money isn't coming down," said Meadors, adding that it also was important to be a present local leader.
Many also agreed to trust the superintendent's guidance, communicate with constituents for ideas and seek help from local businesses.
Wade suggested taking lessons from Atlanta's private Ron Clark Academy, which builds relationships with corporate companies and relies heavily on parent involvement.
Consuegra also said she would propose to look for help and suggestions from other school systems in the same budget crunch, and Johnson said the system should look at programs that didn't work in previous years and cut the ones that weren't necessary to safety, academics or salaries.
Hart also suggested that if staff cuts had to be made that a local education association should ask NCSS employees if they would rather keep a certain amount of teachers and paraprofessionals and keep their pay or if they would rather take a pay cut and keep the staff members.
He also would reduce the pay of higher-level administrators and favors increasing the property tax millage if actual payments don't increase, like this year, he said.
Meadors also said it's important to add and differentiate more businesses in the county to draw in passersby and generate more sales tax for the system.
Baker also added that offering early retirement to those close to retirement could help clear up some staff and also suggested researching more grants and getting local help from the community, as she has done with funding monthly Student of the Month receptions at her child's school.
Wade suggested outsourcing some jobs, and Johnson suggested developing a step by step action plan and looking at the budget by line item.
Brown, who supports lobbying and partnering with businesses, said she wants to see NCSS be the best educational system in Georgia.
Candidates also answered questions from the audience regarding their duties as school board members and on how they would get people excited about moving to Newton County and improving student performance, as compared to higher achieving neighboring counties.
In addition to lobbying and looking to other school systems and constituents for ideas, many candidates agreed that they would be there to make policy, like the budget, and discuss issues with constituents, not micromanage the schools and school system.
"We're policy makers ... not day-to-day operations people," Thompson said.
He added that the board members should be a liaison to the community and be cheerleaders for the staff.
Wade said they also needed to make sure the superintendent was doing his job, and Consuegra said that the members needed to be educated about all of the "educational jargon" that they would have to approve in order to be able to cast votes responsibly.
"We must be accountable for everything we do," Johnson said.
Baker said the board needed to be an advocate for all types of students from all types of households.
And Coggin said she saw her role as being more of a listener.
"If you listen, you can be a great communicator," she said, adding that communication was lacking this past year.
Candidates also suggested looking at other counties to see the types of programs that are working in their districts, focusing on programs that are working in NCSS and partnering more with local colleges to focus on graduating students and helping them apply for college.