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Board Briefs: School Board Hears School Reopening Plans, Budget Update

Board Briefs: School Board Hears School Reopening Plans, Budget Update

The Cherokee County School Board during its May meeting, which was held this evening virtually and streamed online, heard school reopening plans and a budget update.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian V. Hightower said, while the goal is to reopen schools in person on Aug. 3, it may not be achievable.

“We do not know what the state of public health will be three months from now, so, while we are cautiously optimistic in relation to our plans for an in-person return to school, we need to also have contingencies for a possible delayed start and the potential need for continued Digital Learning Days,” Dr. Hightower said.

He has tasked Chief Operations Officer Dr. Debra Murdock with gathering information and feedback on several reopening options for next school year, including a cost analysis, for opening in person in August, either on Aug. 3 or a delayed start, with an increased focus on health and wellness including: frequent disinfecting of high-touch areas, temperature checks, signage about hand-washing and similar wellness musts, smaller groups of students at each lunch seating, and other measures.  While this potential option still is in development, and will be reviewed along with other options by an ad hoc committee of staff, parents and community partners led by Dr. Murdock, initial budget adjustments for additional custodial service, cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment are estimated at $2.25 Million.

Dr. Hightower has charged Chief Academic Officer Dr. Nicole Holmes with preparing new virtual training sessions for teachers over the summer to increase their online teaching capabilities.  Plans already are underway by Dr. Holmes and her Office Curriculum & Instruction team to expand upon the current emergency model to one that provides more interaction with teachers and extends learning throughout traditional school day hours.  

Given the significant impact continued Digital Learning Days would have on families, and how disruptive a hybrid of a partial in-person and virtual learning option can be for working parents, Dr. Hightower said he will not make a determination about the reopening of schools until July 1 at the earliest.  Dr. Hightower reiterated that he and his leadership team will be extremely sensitive to students, parents and employees as a plan for reopening is developed and implemented.  

The July 1 date is the same one he will use for determining whether the tentatively scheduled in-person graduation ceremonies in late July will take place as is, or in-person with attendance limitations, or held virtually instead.  As previously announced, CCSD high schools will hold parades on their campuses on Friday, May 29, as a special additional celebration to congratulate graduating seniors and their families.

“Thankfully we have two and a half months to do our due diligence and see how all this [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other such] guidance shakes out,” School Board member Mike Chapman said of CCSD’s plan to review all recommendations, including as they continue to evolve, before developing a localized plan.

The School Board this evening also heard a report on anticipated revenue for CCSD’s next fiscal year, which begins July 1.  As previously reported to the School Board, CCSD employees and families, the possible State education funding cuts of 14% will mean a $32 Million shortfall for CCSD that likely cannot be bridged without further operational, programmatic and personnel cost reductions.

“We are committed to presenting our School Board with a balanced budget that minimizes any negative impact on our students’ learning and our employees’ compensation, which at this time tentatively calls for a step increase as represented in the staff’s current cost analysis.  At the same time, we will base this budget on the School Board’s commitment to keep the property tax rate steady with no increases,” Dr. Hightower said.  “That’s a challenging task, but it’s critically important, and my senior staff and I are up to the challenge.”

The State Legislature will not convene until June at the earliest to set its budget, but Dr. Hightower last month tasked his senior staff with making cuts to central office operations and freezing all new hiring in order to lessen the need for possible furloughs.  During the meeting, he detailed these numerous budget cuts, which are posted online here.  
With these cuts and other budget adjustments, along with $3.7 Million in Federal CARES Act funds allotted in response to the pandemic and continued improvements in local property values, the anticipated budget gap would shrink to $8.2 Million before furlough days (a closer look is posted online here).  The School District did realize $3 Million in net cost avoidance as a result of the school closures, which has been moved to reserves and could possibly be used to further lessen the impact of State cuts. The majority of CCSD’s day-to-day budget is spent on staff compensation, with a daily operations’ price tag of $1.5 million.  

Chief of Staff Mike McGowan and Chief Financial Officer Kenneth Owen both shared reports on the issue with the School Board.

“The 14% number is fluid and may be adjusted either up or down depending upon April revenue reports, possible statutory provisions (such as an increase in the tobacco tax), adjustments to tax credits, adjustments to voucher statutes, etc.,” Mr. McGowan said.  “Additionally, the State coffers may see an influx from another round of stimulus funds and from the receipt of the delayed State income taxes, which were deferred to July.  Unfortunately, the bottom line determination on the likely austerity reduction is a waiting game, as all of this unfolds over the next five weeks.” 
As soon as more detailed information is provided by the State government, Dr. Hightower said he would update the School Board and prepare a finalized recommended budget.  The budget usually is presented to the School Board in May, with three public hearings and a vote to adopt it held in June.  Due to the State delay, the CCSD budget likely will not be presented to the School Board until June or July; as the fiscal year begins July 1, Dr. Hightower said he anticipates the need for a spending resolution to continue operations until that time.

“Without the State’s finalized budget, it’s something of a targeted guess, so I appreciate all the work that has gone into this,” School Board Chair Kyla Cromer said following the presentation.

The School Board also:

• Heard an overview from Dr. Holmes of student summer learning activities, including the Summer Learning Adventure online resources (online at for all grades; high school online course recovery and initial credit courses (; evening high school credit recovery through CCSD’s partner, Mountain Education Charter High School; as well as Special Education and remediation programs.

• Approved a proposal for $1.6 Million from JF Petroleum Group for construction of a replacement bus shop fuel island;

• Approved a proposal for $3.9 Million from BM&K Construction Inc. for improvements to the Etowah High School athletic facility.  As approved by voters as part of the Education SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) renewal, which will fund the project, the improvements will ensure safe and accessible facilities for students during PE classes and extra-curricular athletic and band activities, as well as for guests at public events;

• Approved the renewal of the Partnership Agreements with the Cherokee County Department of Family and Children Services and Young Harris College;

• Approved monthly financial reports;

• Approved curriculum for health and PSEAE classes for Grades 6-9;

• Approved development of the five-year facilities plan update;

• Approved the monthly capital outlay project reports;

• Approved special lease agreements;

• Approved monthly personnel recommendations; and,

• Approved the 2020-21 School Year CCSD Code of Conduct.

The next School Board meeting will be June 18, 2020