School leaders seek input from public

After hearing from school officials regarding the system’s current challenges, recent successes and current vision, parents and community members who attended last week’s strategic planning meeting voted on what they like, what they want to change and what they see as the local schools’ biggest obstacles. 
It has been six years since Jefferson County School Board’s last community engagement meeting in which the strategic plan that was laid out included attention to literacy, numeracy, school culture and facilities. From that 2011 meeting the school system developed its mission statement that reads “To partner with the community in creating a learning culture that challenges, supports and ensures the success of every child, every day,” as well as the system’s vision, which reads, “A unified community ensuring that every child will graduate from high school postsecondary ready.”
Superintendent Dr. Molly Howard said that the purpose of public education is to prepare students for college, career and life.
“College is not the only route to success,” Howard said. “It is predicted that 80 percent of jobs and careers will require a technical education.”
The purpose of the meeting held last Tuesday and the district wide survey currently available online, is to get feedback from parents, business leaders and the rest of the community to develop a new strategic plan to build on the foundations already in place and create a blueprint for the school district for the next several years.
There are currently 2,626 students enrolled in Jefferson County’s public schools, kindergarten through 12th grade. Some 828 of those are in high school, 540 in middle grades, and 1,258 in the elementary schools with a slight increase in the number of Hispanic students. Enrollment has been steadily dropping for the past 21 years.
“These drops were predicted,” Howard said. “It is based on a decreased birth rate, not just people moving away, however those do go hand in hand. It all began with the early recession. This is typical of what small, rural counties all over Georgia are facing right now.”
Howard went on to explain that the majority of the revenue the school system gets to run the schools comes from local taxes (27 percent), state revenue (62 percent) and federal funds (11 percent). Over the last seven years the state has refused to provide the local system with $12,695,653 that it earned from its established per pupil Quality Basic Education (or QBE) formula.  In that same period, the cost of health insurance for non-certified staff (such as bus drivers, janitorial staff, lunch room workers, para pros, etc.) has risen from $1,952. 64 annually to more than $11,340 per employee. And the portion of teachers retirement has grown from paying 9.74 percent of their salary in 2010 to an expected 20.90 percent in 2019.
Some 86 percent of the school board’s total budget is spent on personnel salaries and benefits. Over the last nine years the system has cut 36 certified positions and 45 non-certified. 
“We’ve been lucky that this has all been through attrition,” Howard said. “As people have retired or chosen to leave, we have rearranged our operations to do without those positions. No one has been fired for budgetary reasons.”
Howard went on to talk about each school’s achievements, awards and recognitions earned over the last several years that she said underscore the system’s commitment to both its students and the community.
After her presentation the attendees were broken into discussion groups who each focused on answering three questions: 1. What do you think are our strengths you want to ensure continue? 2. What changes would you like to see in the school system? 3. What do you think are the top challenges faced by the school system?
Once all the results were compiled, attendees were asked to vote on which responses generated by the discussion groups most reflected their opinions. 
Results showed that those who attended the meeting were pleased and want to protect the system’s dual enrollment program and plans for an enhanced STEAM focus. Many also said they wanted to continue to see professional learning and development for teachers supported. 
As far as changes go, attendees said they would like to see more engagement with stakeholders and parents. They would also like to see the schools teach students more about social media etiquette and more technology introduced in the elementary schools. 
They identified the top local challenges to educators as being a need for programs for at-risk students, more parental involvement, stressed the importance of recruiting and retaining high quality teachers, perceived county division and the presence of drugs, gangs or clubs, and the problems associated with the area’s high levels of poverty.
Through Sept. 10, school officials are asking area citizens, parents, students and civic leaders to fill out a survey that asks these same questions.
“The input will be used to ensure that the resulting strategic plan will reflect the wishes of the district’s citizenry,” Howard said. 
The survey is available online through the district’s website at  https://www.jefferson.k12.ga.us