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Fayette BOE have their say in verbal brawl

Schoolyard brawls usually attract a lot of attention. That would have been the case at the May 4 meeting of the Fayette County Board of Education, except that the meeting was sparsely attended, as usual, and

there was no dirt to kick around. But there was plenty of mud to sling.

Board member Bob Todd, perhaps coincidentally while his opponent in the July primary sat in the audience, was taken to task by fellow board members Janet Smola and Chairman Terri Smith for some of his recently published statements that link to previous ones. It is not the first time board members have bantered back and forth on issues but is was the most prolonged.

The board was in the middle of a discussion of the upcoming budget and the millions of dollars of proposed cuts facing board members. A discussion of the significant fund balance now in place was followed by comments from Superintendent John DeCotis on the things parents expect from Fayette schools and the needed cuts that were made by the board last year.

“We will do well if we don’t cut our employees anymore, and if we can do more for them I think that’s great,” DeCotis said. “But what we need to keep in mind is that we were criticized before for having a lower fund balance because we did absorb the cost rather than cut things that we felt were central for students. We have a lot of good things going for us and that’s why people come here and have been very supportive of the school system and what we are doing.”

It was at that point that Smola initiated a change in the direction of the budget conversation.

“I’m so glad you said that. I really am,” Smola said to DeCotis, noting that she was “astonished” to read what she said were comments by Todd in a newspaper article where he said, “’due to a lack of foresight and planning the school system is one the verge of losing its standing as one of the nation’s top school systems.’”

“You know that’s not true. You absolutely know that’s not true,” Smola then said to Todd, recounting the school system’s many academic accomplishments over the past few years despite the “$40 million in cuts from the state” since 2002 and use of “reserves” to fill in the blanks. “A statement like that is absolutely irresponsible.”

Her statements were followed with those of Todd, suggesting Smola re-read the article.

“I was talking about finances,” Todd said several times, injecting his comments into Smola’s repeated statements of what she said she was reading. “You’re diverting away from the issue. I’m talking about the budget, Ms. Smola. Talking about cuts, Ms. Smola. I know what the accolades are for this system. I was talking about finances.”

The back and forth continued for a short time, with Todd saying his priority will be to continue funding the classroom and Smola saying his published comments concerning the budget make it appear as if she, Smith and board member Lee Wright are making all the decisions.

The display continued with Smola and Chairman Terri Smith weighing in on Todd’s vote last year in opposition to the budget based on an issue with national board certified teachers and the lack of a line item on reserves, which Smith and Smola said are prohibited if a school system accepts federal funds.

Their position on reserves notwithstanding, Georgia law allows a school system, with some conditions, to hold up to 15 percent of its budget in reserve.

The “discussion” appeared to wind down from that point, following comments from Wright that he was glad the “three” had adopted the FY 2010 budget, an apparent reference to the 3-2 split vote that sometimes occurs where Smola, Smith and Wright are on one side of an issue with Todd and board member Marion Key on the other.

Wright, and then Smola, thanked DeCotis for his guidance through the recessionary times.

Apparently believing he needed to drive home another point, Todd referenced comments by school system staff and board members in various meetings about a total of $40 million in state cuts over recent years. Asking when the first year of actual cuts in state funding over the prior year occurred (as opposed to austerity cuts that all school systems experience), Comptroller Laura Brock said that, as far as she recalled, the overall budget went down last year for the first time.

“Everybody in the state got austerity cuts. Right? Poor little Fayette wasn’t singled out, right?” Todd asked, rehashing what he said was the point behind his comments on austerity cuts made at previous board meetings and in the recently published account. “We were treated just like everybody else. So when we say we took cuts we took nothing different than anybody else. It was a cut in a projected increase in money.”

Todd said he would prepare for the media an accounting of the actual dollar increases during the time that “we have been crying about” the cuts.

Smith and Smola asked that while putting the information together, Todd also include figures on unfunded state and federal mandates, additional reporting requirements, mandated reductions to class size and all the many variables that are figured into expenditures for which the board has no control, such as fuel prices and unfunded salary increases.

Todd responded to both, saying his published comments referenced land and buildings, not the quality of programs.

That did not satisfy Smola or Smith.

“You opened up this creation of a campaign of fear,” said Smola. “Is that what you’re doing?”

Words between Todd, Smith and Smola continued to be bantered back and forth. Smith proceeded to account for Todd’s votes on the land purchase for the Rivers Elementary site, bond resolutions and other items. Smith was also prepared for the occasion, reciting a litany of votes, both during Todd’s time on the board and earlier, where there was no 3-2 split vote on issues such as budgets and land purchases.

“You can prepare all you want to for the press about the numbers going up and down, But I guarantee you I’ll spend more time digging in the computer because I can and I’m going to call you out on it because it’s lies and you know it,” Smith said.

“Do you want to talk about the property behind Whitewater?” Todd asked.

“Yeah, let’s,” Smith responded. “We had an offer from somebody who was willing to buy it, who wanted to buy it for wetlands and it’s not sold.”

“No, the original proposal was to sell it as swamp land at $2,000 per acre,” Todd said.

“So, wouldn’t that have been $2,000 an acre that we would have had that we don’t have?” Smith questioned.

“The wetland is worth at least $2.5-3 million. Maybe that fits the pattern of why we bought all this extra land. I don’t know,” Todd returned.

“We bought the land that was for sale,” Smith said. “They weren’t going to sell us the land in front and keep the swamp land.”

“I’m not talking about that. We could have sold it for wetlands but that was not the original proposal,” Todd answered, saying later he was referencing the Kiwanis land that was purchased for $1.6 million. “The plot was on giving it away.”

Smola and Smith both responded briefly, insisting that such was not the case.

The back and forth conversation continued for a short time until DeCotis essentially ended the verbal brawl with comments on issues like equalization and mid-term budgeting. Aside from general comments from DeCotis and the board the budget discussion ended.

The board at a subsequent meeting will get back to the budget and the millions of dollars in cuts they face. The budget must be approved by the end of June.

A few school system staff after the meeting said they were embarrassed at the board’s display. Aside from central office staff and a very small number school system employees, usually the only adults at school board meetings are the parents of children receiving awards. Those presentations are made at the beginning of the meetings, after which the parents and children almost always leave.

But Fayette’s school board meetings, in terms of citizen attendance, are no different than most others. Here in Fayette County, as in other locales, the majority of property taxes paid by homeowners goes to the school system, yet school board meetings are the most sparsely attended of any governmental or tax levying body.

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