Sixteen men and women have banded together to “Save our Schools” in Cobb, and the group includes well-known veteran educators, bankers, politicians and businessmen, such as former Gov. Roy Barnes, former Cobb Commissioner Earl Smith and Betty Gray, former Cobb Board of Education member.
The group is called the Save Our Schools Advisory Council.
The common denominator between its members is a love for the Cobb and Marietta school districts, said member and former Cobb School Board member Stanley Wrinkle.
Cobb schools need more money to be great, its members argue, and they want to see something done.
“Our children deserve the best,” said group founder Kermit Keenum, former superintendent of Cobb and Glynn County schools.
Keenum presented a 7-page booklet with the list of the group’s demands to the Marietta City School Board at a meeting Jan. 21, and the group is expected to give another presentation to the Cobb Board of Education at a meeting Monday.
The former two-time Cobb superintendent said he has remained involved with the school system since his retirement, and has watched as teachers have been given more responsibilities, class sizes have skyrocketed and salaries and funds for schools have dropped in the last decade.
“Something needs to be done before we destroy the quality of the schools in Cobb and Marietta,” Keenum said.
Topping the list of the group’s priorities: Figure out how to get more money into Cobb and Marietta schools.
“I do not believe our country can compete in this global economy if we don’t increase state funds to education, and local level funds,” Keenum said.
Increase taxes, more from the state
Cobb schools receive most of their funding from local property taxes, which haven’t been pulling in enough money recently, Keenum said. He would like the state to increase what it gives to the local schools.
The group thinks Gov. Nathan Deal and state legislators should declare the 2015 budget year as “The Year for Georgia’s Students and Teachers,” and putting its priorities on classrooms, according to the group’s written booklet.
All eyes are on legislators this year to fund schools at a higher level, they said.
“The state needs to look very carefully. It is their responsibility to fund public education. That’s the state’s first priority,” Keenum said.
Yet, state Rep. Don Parsons (R-northwest Cobb) recently noted state revenues to Cobb County schools have been going up for the past five years. He said it was “unfair criticism” by those who blame the state for any budget shortfalls.
But in Keenum’s view, more and bigger increases are needed.
He hopes Deal will organize a council of people to coordinate how the state will be able to manage spending more money on schools in the future.
“We think the state is extremely late at this point in creating a new funding program for the schools; we believe looking forward, 60 percent of state revenue should be going into education,” Keenum said.
The group doesn’t want much more than money from the state. Keenum said he firmly believes the majority of school control should be in the hands of the local school board and community.
Switch up outdated formula, SPLOST rules
“I’ve always been concerned the only source of funding we have at the local level is the property tax. Our funding should be made up of two sources, a combination of property and sales taxes,” Keenum said.
The passage of SPLOST IV last March has added a steady stream of money to the school’s budgets, although Keenum is concerned the funds are being spent on buildings and not top priorities, such as decreasing class sizes.
“The state should look this year to try to make some adjustments in the existing SPLOST program for local schools and local school groups to use SPLOST funds with more flexibility,” Keenum said.
An amended law would give communities the option to use SPLOST funds for increasing the length of the school year, or giving teachers bonuses instead of building a new school.
“We feel like the local community is the group that should be making the decisions on the priority on how they spend the funds,” Keenum said.
Fund transportation, teachers, art
A sharp rise in class sizes has made it hard for teachers to do their jobs, Keenum argued.
Cuts in school staff and teachers has only compounded the problem.
“We’ve lost the personnel required to give students one-on-one time. Every teacher has had to do more every day, and that has increased every day for the last five years,” Keenum said.
He would like to see teachers get paid more.
“One thing that has not changed: The best education program starts with the best teachers in the classroom working face to face with students. Without a good teacher in the classroom, that’s not going to happen, they need the support and material to get the job done,” Keenum said.
Less state funding has come to the local school district for transportation since 2002, when the state funded 40 percent of school transportation costs, according to the group’s booklet.
By 2014, state funding had dropped to 17 percent, the booklet said.
This group wants to see that changed.
“The state needs to be paying 60 percent of that as a minimum,” Keenum said.
As for the other 40 percent? Let the local community decide how to come up with it, Keenum said. He would favor an increase in local sales taxes and property taxes to avoid the “erosion” of Cobb’s educational programs.
“Education is a full-time, all-time situation,” said Betty Gray, retired Cobb teacher and member of the Board of Education.
Never before in her 60 years of working in education has Gray seen such a need for funding education.
“It’s a must situation and a now situation,” she said. “Let’s move the edge of the envelope to see how we will find solutions.”
Will not rest until mission is accomplished
“Most of us lived our whole lives in Cobb,” Keenum said. He loves his home and wants to see it protected. Three out of his four children work in education, and he has invested his life in ensuring Cobb students receive a quality education. Keenum served as Cobb superintendent from 1973 to 1980, and again from 1989 to 1992.
“As long as I can breathe and think, I am going to do everything I can to make sure Cobb remains a leader in the state, the Southeast and the nation in education,” Keenum said.
Keenum said his group would welcome the opportunity to work with similar groups, including Face It Cobb.
What sets this group apart from the others is it’s comprised of such well-known figures, said member Jay Cunningham.
“If there is influence, it’s in this group,” Cunningham said.
The group plans to lobby the state Legislature for more funding for education, and stay engaged long after this November’s election, said Keenum, who is concerned this year’s anticipated increase in state funding was budgeted because it’s an election year.
“We simply cannot waste a lot of time,” Keenum said.
Save Our Schools board
Neil Barfield — executive director of Marietta Schools Foundation and former Cobb banker
Roy Barnes — former governor, head of the Barnes Law Group
Fred Bentley, Jr. — partner at Marietta-based law firm Bentley, Bentley and Bentley
Phil Blackwell — retired Cobb director of Elementary Instruction and Administrator for Georgia Professional Standards Commission
Jay Cunningham — owner, Superior Plumbing
George “Buddy” Darden — former U.S. Congressman
Betty Gray — retired Cobb teacher and school board member
Bill Hutson — retired Cobb sheriff
Kermit Keenum — former Cobb Superintendent
Tom Mathis — retired Cobb school administrator
Bob Prillaman — community leader
James “Friday” Richards — retired head football coach of Marietta Blue Devils
Betty Siegel — president emeritus of Kennesaw State University
Earl Smith — former Chairman of Cobb Board of Commissioners
Ralph Williams — retired principal of McEachern High School
Stanley Wrinkle — retired Cobb assistant superintendent