Should Catoosa County school board races be partisan and held in November? And should the school superintendent be elected directly by voters — instead of hired by the school board?
Those are non-binding straw poll questions placed on the May 20 Republican primary ballot by the Catoosa County Republican Party, a group that’s upset over the school board’s vote in July to raise property taxes by 1.95 mills, an increase of $95 annually for the owner of a $150,000 home.
The Catoosa GOP didn’t pose the straw poll questions as payback for the tax hike, party Chairman Jeremy Jones said.
“We think it’d be better to elect the school board in November, so you get a higher voter turnout,” he said. “It’s the only position in our county that’s not [partisan].”
The reason to make the school board seats partisan, Jones said, is because if they remain nonpartisan and go before voters in November, then any runoff election would need to be held in December when voter turnout is low.
Catoosa County Schools board Chairman Don Dycus doesn’t think it makes sense to have candidates declare their party allegiance.
“I think it’s a very bad idea to try to make school board elections partisan,” said Dycus, who’s served on the school board since 1998. “If you look across the state, other boards that have a hard time getting along are partisan. It would just create unnecessary conflicts.”
About 60 percent of Georgia school boards are nonpartisan, according to figures from the Georgia School Boards Association.
Superintendents appointed since 1992
Georgia school districts haven’t had directly elected superintendents since 1992, when a constitutional amendment was passed requiring local boards of education to appoint superintendents, Georgia School Boards Association spokesman Justin Pauly said.
“The reason and push for the change was that politics were driving decision-making for education,” Pauly said. “The concern was that superintendents were more focused on making decisions to get re-elected than for student achievement. Also, the change allowed for the tax levying burden to be placed on the elected boards so that the appointed superintendent may run the day-to-day operations of a school system and focus purely on education.”
Dycus doesn’t like the idea of a directly elected schools superintendent.
“With the school board selecting a superintendent, a search can be made outside the county,” he said. “If it’s an elected position, it’d have to be a resident of the county.”
Jones said that many Catoosa County residents disagreed with Schools Superintendent Denia Reese’s 2009 decision to stop Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High cheerleaders from holding up Bible-verse-bearing signs for the football team to run through before games. Reese ordered the cheerleaders not to use their signs inside the school’s stadium but provided a “designated area” outside where they would be welcome.
“She had no obligation to listen to the community. Because she wasn’t beholden to them, she didn’t have to,” Jones said.
In a statement, Reese said “As an employee of the board of education, I am accountable to five people who are elected to represent the citizens of this community. As an appointed superintendent, I am not trying to advance a political agenda. I make decisions everyday with only one agenda, doing what is best for children.”
If Catoosa voters indicate strong support for direct elections of school superintendents, Jones said, the county Republican party will pass that information along to state party officials. He said Republican parties in other Georgia counties have posed similar straw poll questions.
Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.