Board Business Briefs: School Board Reviews Budget, Approves Construction of New Cherokee HS
Rendering of the new replacement Cherokee High School scheduled to open in August 2026.
The Cherokee County School Board on Thursday, May 18, 2023 reviewed the proposed budget for next school year, which increases salaries for teachers and support staff, and approved the construction contract for the new replacement Cherokee High School campus.
The proposed budget for next school invests $20 Million to improve pay for teachers and support staff, but remains balanced and keeps last year’s lowered tax rate in place.
The general fund budget, which covers day-to-day operating costs, is proposed at $538 Million. The total budget, which also includes construction projects like the new replacement Cherokee High School and Free Home Elementary School, debt service, other funds and a strong emergency reserve, is $832.8 Million.
“Preparing the budget is my most important role, as it ultimately drives the success of our students,” Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian V. Hightower said. “This year’s challenge is to keep our salaries and benefits for teachers and support staff as competitive as possible to retain and recruit the best of the best for our students’ benefit. There is no better investment.”
During Thursday’s pre-meeting work session, the board reviewed the budget and heard presentations from Dr. Hightower and his senior staff. The zero-based budgeting process begins with school board members giving Dr. Hightower their budget priorities and ends with their adoption of the budget. The full budget is posted online, as is Financial Facts, a report on the budget written for the community to better understand its details.
All employee salary schedules were reviewed, evaluated and adjusted to remain competitive. Teachers will receive a $4,500 raise (this includes the Governor’s $2,000 raise), as well as any annual step increase for which they are eligible. Classified staff will receive a 3% pay increase plus any step increases. Additionally, retention/signing bonuses of $1,000 for full-time employees and $500 for part-time employees will be issued in September.
In addition to the need to raise teacher and support staff pay to remain competitive, a big challenge was the recent decision by the state to increase the employer share of paying for employees’ participation in the state health benefits plan. This cost to CCSD is increased by 67% for certified employees, which is a jump from $945 to $1,580 per month per certified employee (which includes teachers) and to $1,195 per classified employee (support staff), with additional increases for 2024-25.
School board member Kelly Poole also spoke to the state’s mandate that school systems must give a chunk of their local property tax revenue, for CCSD next school year it’s a projected $69 Million, to the state for redistribution to “poorer” areas. It’s especially frustrating, she noted, to see counties like Gwinnett, with its strong tax base that generates $55 Million for every mill as compared to Cherokee’s lower $15 Million, take money away from CCSD classrooms.
As part of the budget presentation, the school board heard an update on hiring for next school year. The district is in an excellent position, with only 28 teacher positions and 2 kindergarten paraprofessional positions still to be filled and a continuous flow of applications being reviewed. Bus driver openings, which are a national challenge to fill at this time, all are staffed for next school year, with a focus now on hiring “relief” drivers who serve as a permanent pool of substitute drivers.
Chief Human Resources Officer Rick Beaulieu said he attributes this success to CCSD’s outstanding reputation as a great place to work, as well as the school board’s pledge to both increase compensation for teachers and support staff and maintain low class sizes.
“We really try to focus on where our money needs to be -- and that’s for the kids in the classroom,” School Board Chair Kyla Cromer said.
During the regular meeting, the board tabled the budget for a 30-day public review. It will hold three public hearings for input before adopting the budget and the millage rate, which is not recommended for increase, on June 15. The hearings are at 11:30 a.m. June 7 and 11:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. June 15 in the school board auditorium.
During the meeting, Mr. Cromer also spoke about property assessments, which are being mailed by the county government to property owners this week. Many property owners will see their property assessment rise due to higher property values caused by increasing home and land prices. The school board does not determine property value -- that’s a role of the county government and its tax assessors. If property owners disagree with their property assessment, they can pursue exemptions, such as the generous senior school tax exemption, and/or assessment appeals through the tax assessor’s office; more information is online at https://www.cherokeega.com/tax-assessors-office/.
NEW CHEROKEE HIGH SCHOOL
The School Board on Thursday made history with its vote to approve the construction contract for the new Cherokee High School, replacing the district’s oldest facility. The core buildings on the Cherokee HS campus opened in 1956, with numerous additions and renovations since including more than $16 Million in investments since 2002.
“I’m so impressed by the design and the state-of-the-art labs,” said school board member Dr. Susan Padgett-Harrison, who during her career with CCSD served as principal of Cherokee High School. “When I see how beautiful the front of that school is, I’m excited to vote for it tonight.”
School board member Patsy Jordan, who could not attend the meeting due to participation in a school awards program, sent remarks to Ms. Cromer to be shared during the meeting. A Cherokee High School graduate, Ms. Jordan said she knows how long the community has waited for this day to come.
“I’m looking forward to many generations of Cherokee High School students being educated in this new state-of-the-art high school,” she said, noting she also looks forward to seeing the current campus be repurposed for additional positive educational purposes.
The contract is the largest CCSD has ever awarded for a high school at $179 Million, but the cost per square foot is in alignment with current rates for school construction. Rising costs for materials and labor, coupled with the school’s size, led to the higher than anticipated price tag. CCSD staff conducted a thorough analysis of costs and cost trends to help Dr. Hightower make the recommendation that there would be no cost benefit in delaying the project, as prices are anticipated to continue to rise.
The new campus, planned to open in August 2026, will include 473,761 square feet of facility space, with a design for 3,000 students in order to accommodate the current enrollment of 2,800 students and allow room for growth. It will include 152 classrooms, a 1,000 seat auditorium and a 4,500 seat football stadium among its features. There are no plans to change the attendance boundary lines for the school – the entire enrollment will move to the new school when it opens.
The cost for the contract with Carroll Daniel Construction will be funded, as approved by voters, with Education Special Local Option Sales Tax (Ed SPLOST) revenue and associated bonding. The school district will receive $31 Million from the state government to help pay for the construction cost. This will be the first time for the district to fund construction through the new Ed SPLOST, as the entire cost for the new replacement Free Home Elementary School now under construction was covered with funds already in hand.
Site preparation, which was approved through a separate contract, already is underway at the site which is in the RiverStone Plaza shopping district and adjacent to Teasley Middle School.
The future of the current Cherokee High School campus has not yet been determined by the School Board. Dr. Hightower said Thursday he supports the immediate, upon the new campus's completion, return of Canton Elementary School, which was absorbed into the Cherokee HS campus to meet its enrollment needs, for elementary school use. The building, he noted, also could possibly house additional preschool classes and assessment services. The main Cherokee High School campus, he said, could be the expanded home for CCSD school choice programs, such as the Cherokee College & Career Academy, as well as a possible second CCSD site for the evening high school program provided by CCSD Partner, Mountain Education Charter High School.
Clockwise from top left, Dr. Mark Merges, Matt Freedman, Joni Adams, Meleia Bridenstine, Eric Blair, Natasha Diaz, Mark Smith.
As part of its monthly personnel agenda item, the School Board approved the retirement of Dr. Mark Merges, CCSD executive director for administrative leadership for middle and high schools. A 29-year educator, Dr. Merges has served 22 years with CCSD including as principal of Creekview HS and assistant principal at Sequoyah HS and Dean Rusk MS.
Rodney Larrotta, principal of Cherokee HS, was appointed last month to the executive director role for elementary schools, but will instead serve in the middle and high schools role following Dr. Merges’s announcement.
Little River ES Principal Matt Freedman was appointed Thursday to serve as the executive director for administrative leadership for elementary schools. A 22-year educator, Principal Freedman joined CCSD in 2018 as principal for Woodstock ES before moving to his current post in 2021. He previously served as a principal, assistant principal, administrator and teacher in Cobb County and as a teacher in Fulton County.
The Little River ES principal post will be filled by current assistant principal Joni Adams. A 16-year educator, Ms. Adams joined CCSD in her current role in 2021 after working as a teacher and a school leadership intern in Cobb County. Ginger Morgan, who currently serves as an assistant principal at Avery ES, will move to Little River ES. Meleia Bridenstine, who currently serves as a principal for Dalton City Schools, will join CCSD as an assistant principal for Avery ES.
Mark Smith, former principal of Woodstock HS and Woodstock MS and who has served for the past year as an administrator in CCSD’s assessment department, will lead ACTIVE Academies as its next principal. The campus includes ACE Academy, Cherokee College & Career Academy, i-Grad Virtual Academy and Transition Academy.
Natasha Diaz, who currently serves as teacher on special assignment in CCSD’s Office of Curriculum & Instruction, will take on a new role as CCSD’s coordinator for literacy for all grade levels. As part of her role, she will help guide CCSD’s alignment with new state laws designed to raise early literacy rates statewide.
The School Board also approved the appointment of Eric Blair to serve as Woodstock High School’s new head boys basketball coach. A highly accomplished basketball coach and PE teacher, Coach Blair most recently served in the same roles at Kennesaw Mountain HS and has led teams to region championships and state playoffs.
The School Board also:
- Recognized CCSD’s retiring educators, who recently were honored at the inaugural CCSD Retiring Legends Reception and Recognition Ceremony. Learn more here;
- Recognized Oak Grove ES STEAM Academy for achieving Family Friendly School certification from the Georgia Department of Education. Learn more here;
- Recognized 11 schools – all CCSD middle schools, as well as Woodstock HS and Ball Ground, Knox and R.M. Moore ES STEM Academies – for earning approval recommendations from Cognia for its international STEM certification. Learn more here;
- Recognized CCSD’s 2023 Yes I Can Award winners. Learn more here;
- Recognized the Cherokee HS Air Force JROTC riflery team for overall top honors at the All-Service National Championship Competition. Learn more here;
- Recognized River Ridge HS junior Baileigh J. Borna for First Class Honors in the 2023 National Council of Teachers of English Writing's Achievement Awards in Writing Program Contest. Learn more here;
- Recognized CCSD’s 2023 Georgia Scholars. Learn more here;
- Recognized Dean Rusk MS teacher Sara Lawson and Etowah HS senior Scarleth Cantarero Murillo as the Exemplary English for Speakers of Other Languages Teacher of the Year and English Learner Student of the Year. Learn more here;
- Recognized Sequoyah High School Sophomore Olivia Power -- First-Place Honors at the 2023 Atlanta American Institute of Architects High School Design Competition. Learn more here;
- Recognized CCSD’s 2023 regional and state Social Studies Fair winners. Learn more here;
- Recognized CCSD’s 2023 Georgia PTA Reflections fine arts contest first-place winners. Learn more here;
- Recognized CCSD’s 2023 Young Georgia Authors writing competition region winners. Learn more here;
- Recognized CCSD’s 2022-23 regional and state Elementary Science Olympiad winners. Learn more here;
- Recognized the 2023 CCSD Elementary School Academic Bowl winners. Learn more here;
- Recognized CCSD’s Georgia High School Association state and regional champions. Learn more here;
- Recognized Woodstock HS senior Ryan Capozzi, winner of 2023 Pine Bluff Landfill/ WM Scholarship. Learn more here;
- Recognized CCSD’s 2023 ABM Industry Group LLC scholarship recipients. Learn more here;
- Recognized Rowan Steele of Sequoyah HS and Richard Beaudrie III and Ryan Richard of Cherokee HS as recipients of the 2022-23 Don Stevens Memorial Scholarship. Learn more here;
- Recognized CCSD’s 2022-23 Student Advisor to School Board and Student Delegates for their service and commitment. Learn more here;
- Approved the renewal of partnership agreements with ABM Industry Groups LLC and Tri-State Communications;
- Approved the adoption of a resolution supporting a Georgia High School Association Constitution bylaw modification;
- Approved monthly financial reports;
- Approved out of state staff travel;
- Approved out of state and overnight student field trips;
- Approved the monthly update on capital outlay projects;
- Approved special lease agreements; and,
- Approved the 2023-24 School Year Code of Conduct.