Their to-do list targeted the balanced calendar; the expensive liability of employee rollover vacation accrual; the 1-2-3 standards based report cards that required sending home a separate “how to read this report card” manual; and perpetual contracts with Brock and Clay for legal services, among other issues.
The board got off to a fast and furious start, taking control of the board from the get-go by electing Bartlett as chair, and then swiftly tossing out the so-called balanced calendar and returning the system to a later school start date. But the vote was highly controversial and brought serious backlash from supporters of the balanced calendar, just as the implementation of the balanced calendar had upset the late-start-day set.
Beyond that, though, little has been changed this year.
On the vacation accrual, the board talked about changing the policy during its Jan. 27 meeting — and then promptly dropped the issue. The district allows all administrators, central office employees, janitors and any year-round employee to roll over unused vacation days and cash them out when they retire or leave the district. The district’s finance chief, Mike Addison, said at the time that if the district had to pay out all of those benefits at once, it would total more than $7 million.
Sweeney, one of the reformers who had said during his campaign that the rollovers “need to end now,” instead made a motion to table the item indefinitely on Jan. 27, and then denied he had flip-flopped on a campaign promise.
Board Chair Bartlett — who had tried to end the rollover practice in 2010, but was outvoted — told the Journal that the issue may come up during budget talks for the 2012-13 fiscal year. It didn’t come up in 2011, she said, partly because of the change in superintendents.
“I didn’t think it was appropriate to hit (Hinojosa) with that one,” Bartlett said. “It would be better … when we’re looking at our budget concerns. I see it coming up in the next three to four months.”
On the 3-2-1 report cards that are used for kindergarten, and first and second grades, Bartlett again said she wanted to give new superintendent Dr. Michael Hinojosa time to get acclimated before putting the issue on his plate.
And though she does not agree with standards-based grading, Bartlett said, “we need to focus on the big thing, which right now is the budget.”
For his part, Sweeney says he doesn’t like the 3-2-1 report card, either, but couldn’t explain why it wasn’t brought before the board in the first half of 2011, when Fred Sanderson was still the superintendent.
“Students don’t magically perform better because a different evaluation tool is being used,” Sweeney said. “Our skilled teachers are readily capable of communicating student strengths and weaknesses. My concerns about the K-3 standards-based grading systems … center on the potential of additional time teachers must spend completing the evaluations and time teachers must spend receiving training to effectively administer the evaluations. This is time I feel is better spent as instructional time.”
Block vs. traditional scheduling in high schools is also an issue that touches a nerve. Of Cobb’s 16 high schools, only three are based on a traditional schedule, where students take the same classes every day. Interestingly, those three are also the district’s top-performing schools in terms of SAT average: Walton (1725), Pope (1676) and Lassiter (1634).
The traditional schedule is also favored by board chair Bartlett and at least two of the new board members.
For Bartlett, consistency across the district is key.
“There’s pros and cons to all schedules. Whatever we choose, it should be the entire system,” she said. “When we need to move students, we’re trapped about which school we can move them to because of scheduling issues. Our high schools with the higher transient rate are on the block scheduling, and it’s very difficult for parents who are moving them around to be able to keep up with their high school because of seat time. They are left behind in high school credits.”
Vice chair Sweeney said that while he was campaigning, he expressed his favor for the traditional schedule, “and the belief that the district needs to have a serious discussion concerning this topic.”
“Missing class under a block schedule means a student loses the equivalent of two instructional days,” Sweeney said. “Instructional consistency and continuity are important, particularly so with math programs. With block scheduling, it’s conceivable a student would not have a math course for a full year” — though he acknowledged that block does have its supporters.
Stultz said he was on block when he attended high school in Rockdale County, and had no problem with it.
Still, “I do see where it could be a negative for students who are absent and can’t keep up with the workload. Unfortunately, this is a consequence of the ‘one shoe fits all’ model that we use in education. Block may work well for some, while the traditional schedule may work better for others. Fiscally speaking, the Superintendent has stated that block scheduling is more expensive, so it would probably serve the district well to standardize around the traditional schedule.”
Bartlett said she has heard from several board members about the block scheduling.
“I would not be surprised if it ended up on the agenda in the next few months,” she said.
For his part, Superintendent Hinojosa has said he’s ambivalent about the schedule.
“Block scheduling is more expensive, so you don’t get any more units, and your classes are larger if you’re on a block schedule,” Hinojosa said in an interview published Dec. 4. “Some people would argue that low-income students need to have math every day, and they don’t necessarily in different types of block, but there is no significant data that points in either direction.”
He also believes the school principal should decide what is best for his or her school, rather than have the school board dictate a schedule.
“If you have a great principal, they can manage whatever schedule you’re on,” he said. “A couple of board members are trying to push me (toward a traditional schedule) and I’ve said, ‘Look, I’m not going to do that.’ I feel the same way about the school calendar. You can get great success under the traditional calendar or the balanced calendar. I even had my kids on a year-round calendar, but it’s not the calendar and it’s not the schedule. It’s what you do when you’re in there that really makes the difference.
“I believe it should be up to the individual principal and then we hold them accountable. If I’m directed to do otherwise, I’ll do what I’m directed to do,” Hinojosa said.
As for legal services, it’s unlikely that contract will be put out to bid, even though Bartlett, Angelucci and Sweeney all were on record in 2010 as supporting a bid. The Brock, Clay, Calhoun, and Rogers firm, of Marietta, has been the school district’s lawyer for about 22 years. It is also the law firm that represents Marietta City Schools, as well as several other districts in the state.
On Nov. 9, the board directed finance chief Addison to see how Cobb’s $2 million in annual fees compare to similar districts. Addison looked at Atlanta, DeKalb, Fulton, Clayton, and Gwinnett, and found that only Clayton pays less in legal fees than does Cobb.
DeKalb, which has about 7,000 more students than does Cobb (which has 107,000 students), pays $6 million a year, nearly three times Cobb’s costs.
For Bartlett, that makes the subject moot.
“We currently have very competitive services, and at this time I do not see a need to put it out to bid,” Bartlett said.
One other thing — or person, rather, who came up during the 2010 campaign was the district’s communications director Jay Dillon. Sweeney and Angelucci both stated that if elected, they would get rid of Dillon. But last spring, his contract, along with most others in the executive cabinet, was renewed.
Angelucci didn’t respond to inquiries about the discrepancy. But Sweeney now says his campaign comments were wrong.
“During a 2010 candidate forum Q&A, I said ‘ditto’ responding to a comment stating that ‘if elected, Mr. Dillon should be looking for another job.’ I’ve apologized to Mr. Dillon for my statement. It’s wrong for any board member to suggest that they would get rid of a particular employee which would effectively be micromanaging district personnel decisions. I have never attempted to place a request on the agenda to remove Mr. Dillon from the staff.”