School board member and candidate Terri Smith is battling back against a recent mailing campaign by a local political action committee.
“When I was an eighth grade Language Arts teacher, we used to do a unit on recognizing propaganda techniques. I wish I had know the leaders of the Take Back Fayette County PAC then. I would have invited them to be guest lecturers in my class,” said Smith.
According to the recent mailing by the PAC, spending during Smith’s tenure as Fayette County Board of Education chairman (2003-2010) rose from $154,673,060 to $256,125, 385 - a 65.6 percent increase, but student enrollment only increased 9.9 percent.
“Never during that time did I have more than one vote out of five,” said Smith. “All the decisions being criticized were made by a majority of the board. Most of them were made unanimously.”
More than that, said Smith, the ‘trend’ of Marion key opposing so many of the superintendent’s recommendations didn’t begin until Dr. Bob Todd re-joined the board in 2007.
“I never considered the chairmanship a position of power. My responsibility was to preside over our meetings. I didn’t abuse the position by working behind the scene to pressure the superintendent to do things my way.”
Smith attributed the increase in spending between 2001 and 2010 due primarily to ‘capital outlay’ for the school system’s building program that had already been approved by voters in 2000 and 2004, which also took into consideration the interest and debt service payments. Smith noted that ‘the years in which you build schools costing millions of dollars are obviously going to have higher expenditures.
“Even now the interest and debt service payments are listed as expenses.
Criticizing these expenses is analogous to criticizing a homeowner for buying a house and then making the mortgage payments and trying to pay off the mortgage. It’s completely ridiculous.”
As far as the accusation of the county’s ‘surplus buildings’ and ‘excess capacity’ is concerned, Smith said the buildings and school locations were planned based on projections of current residential developments.
“Our staff was tracking residential building permits and communicating with county staff on where development was expected. These projects were included in the bond referendum unanimously approved by the Board and approved by the voters.”
As far as the excess property the board purchased for Inman Elementary school, the Inman site was selected to alleviate overcrowding that was expected at Minter and East Fayette elementary schools and the landowner would only agree to sell the whole parcel.
“The school system has been in this situation before and actually generated revenue by selling the excess land.”
There are numerous considerations to site selections for schools, she added.
“To name a few, location, cost, projected growth, traffic patterns, approval from the state, acreage available, geotechnical considerations, septic/sewage needs, etc.”
In the meantime, the Rivers Elementary School site wasn’t available at that time. Smiths said she would have preferred to build that school first because of the overcrowding at Burch Elementary School.
“Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. I don’t believe that Rivers is in a remote location. It was built to relieve overcrowding at Burch and is roughly equidistant between Burch and Cleveland and only four miles from Hood Ave and Fayette Intermediate School. It was an ideal location to relieve overcrowding at any of those schools. Growth was expected in the area.”
In hindsight, she added, she agrees that Inman and Rivers weren’t crucial but she “can’t take responsibility for knowing what was unknowable.” Even thought we were seeing signs of a recession in 2007, I’m certainly not the only person who didn’t predict how severe it would be or its length.”
Smith also disagrees with the statement that the school system is ‘six schools over capacity or that the last five were unnecessary.”
At the time, she said, there was not hint of declining enrollment when the first three schools were built.
“In fact, all of the overcrowding wasn’t addressed in the construction of the first three. The growth trend only slowed, not stopped or declined.”
At the time, the state board of education was also implementing a gradual reduction in class sizes, changing the calculation method from one of system-wide averaging to one of maximum class sizes.
“This is important because with system-wide averages, as long as a grade level averaged the required pupil teacher ratio across the whole system, schools here and there with bigger classes didn’t force the hiring of additional teachers.”
As a result, the switch to class size maximums meant that if a single class went over the maximum, the school had to hire an additional teacher and divide the class.
“On top of that, the state was lowering the maximum every year, so the capacity was being reduced every year. We were also planning for those reduced class sizes in our building program plans. Once the recession hit, the state backed off the reductions and started allowing waivers for classes that go over the maximum by a certain amount.”
Smith said she has doesn’t know why anyone would suggest the building programs during the last decade “were planned during a period of declining enrollment” because charts show the progression of enrollment was still growing between 2004 when the bond referendums were passed.
“We made the decision to proceed with the construction of Rivers in 2007.”
In 2007, the board hired a consultant to work with the redistricting committee, but he wasn’t hired to tell the board whether the construction was necessary.
“Remember, the decision to build two more elementary schools was made in 2004. The decision to proceed with construction at Rivers had already been made when the redistricting consultant was hired.”
Smith calls any accusations of her working with special interest groups completely false.
“For one thing, the school system staff selected the site and presented it to the board. Secondly, I don’t know anyone who owns property in that area.” She continues, “This accusation was born in somebody’s imagination.”
Smith insists that the location was selected for its proximity to an overcrowded school and other schools in the area.
“It was located in the future West Fayetteville Bypass because that’s where the site was, not to help developers. I didn’t participate in the site selection for any of the schools any more than any other board member.”
A handout developed by the Fayette County school administration in 2010 noted that there were “many factors that went into the decision to continue on track with the construction of Rivers Elementary School. The decision was made after consultation with Cabinet members, the internal construction committee and the external construction committee.
“The bond referendum that was passed in 2004 referred to the construction of elementary schools, plural. The plans for this school were made long ago. Additionally, bond money must be spent within certain time periods to eliminate or minimize arbitrage [the restriction that the Federal government places on other governmental entities from earning interest by borrowing funds] issues. Additionally, to eliminate the school from the list of projects would require many legal hurdles in which the school system would need to prove that the construction of the school is no longer feasible. Increasing construction costs were an additional consideration.”
With those escalating costs, the administration said it believed it was in the best interest of the system and the citizens to build a school at a lower price today than building it in two or three years at an estimated 15 to 20 percent higher cost. In the 90s, the system suffered under the criticism that construction wasn’t keeping up with growth, as residents pointed to the number of portable classrooms. According to the school system’s considerations,
“The system had difficulty in getting ahead of growth. While growth over the last two years is at a standstill, the ARC (Atlanta Regional Commission) continues to project growth for the county through 2030. Additional classroom space may not be a critical need today, it will be in the future. Additionally, if Rivers Elementary were opened today, the numbers show that we would have 434 students at River and 505 students at Burch. While small, these are close to ideal sizes for elementary schools.
They also noted that the reason Rivers’ didn’t open as a regular elementary school was because of the more than $6.8 million in state funding cuts in 2009 and another $8.8 million in 2010.
According to Smith, the students at Rivers came from a special ed pre-K program that had been located at the LEC. They were located at Rivers because the special education department was relocated there to keep the building from sitting vacant.
There have also been accusations that Smith made $12.2 million error on her campaign disclosure forms in 2008. Elected officials are required to submit Financial Disclosure Statements annually.
“The form changed a few times. If I recall correctly, one of the changes was the additional requirement of listing property owned by your spouse. I had been in the habit of copying the information from the previous year’s form onto the current year and submitting that since nothing had changed for me personally.”
Smith said when she realized her mistake, she went back and listed her husband’s ownership interests in properties.
“Since I didn’t work with or for my husband, I realized that I didn’t even know about quite a bit of it. The form required that you list the property as having a value of less than $10,000, between $10,000 and $100,000.00, or greater than $100,000.00. “Since I had already been embarrassed by incorrectly completing the form, but had nothing to hide, I went a step further. In an effort to demonstrate transparency and prove that I wasn’t trying to hide anything, I attached a spreadsheet listing the actual property values instead of checking the box.”
That, she said, proved to be her biggest mistake sine someone seized the opportunity to claim that “I forgot about that much money.
“My desire to demonstrate my openness completely backfired on me because that information is still being used against me.
“A second mistake was my failure to list myself as the secretary of my husband’s business. He had owned and operated the business with his sister after the death of their father. When his sister passed away, there was a massive amount of legal paperwork, such as my husband buying out his brother-in-law, changing our wills, etc. Apparently, one of the many, many documents was one that made me an officer in the company. I don’t remember it. When it was brought to my attention, my husband said he didn’t remember it. Once that was brought to my attention, I amended the form to include it.”
Smiths said the purpose of the disclosure statements isn’t to prove how meticulous you are with paperwork.
“The purpose is to make sure that you are not using your elected position to benefit your own businesses. Nothing I have done as a school board member has benefitted any of those properties or businesses.”