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Pamela Belanger answers some tough questions

All on Georgia (AOG) had a discussion with Pamela Belanger (PB) regarding her run for the Board of Education.

First, a little bit about her background in her own words: I’m Pamela Belanger, and I’m running in District 5 for the Paulding County Board of Education. I’m a proud product of Paulding County School District. I grew up in Paulding County, attending Hiram Elementary, East Paulding Middle, Dobbins Middle and East Paulding High before becoming a member of the first graduating class at Hiram High School in 2001. I earned my Bachelor of Science in Environmental Studies from the University of West Georgia in 2006 and a Master in Business Administration from Strayer University in 2013. Since 2005, I’ve resided in Yorkville with my husband. We have four rambunctious boys, ages 15, 11, 5 and almost 3.

Following are some questions AllOnGeorgia sent to Mrs. Belanger and her answers, complete and unedited.

(AOG) What experience do you have with complicated budgets? When you are given a 400- page budget for the district, what will be your process to determine if it is a good budget for the system?

(PB) Like any newcomer to the school board, budget proceedings will be new to me, but I understand the necessity of doing as much as possible with finite resources. It’s important that taxpayer money is properly applied to ensure our children – and our community at large – are well-served. The board must clearly articulate its priorities and carefully reviewing every dollar spent to ensure those priorities are being met. I believe those priorities should include procuring vital resources for classrooms, ensuring that every student has a current textbook that he or she can bring home to assist with homework or review material, encouraging enrichment that makes learning relevant to life and supporting the important work of our educators. I also believe that school budgets should provide for requisite incremental pay increases so we can retain quality educators and fill vacancies with qualified, capable candidates. The budget must constitute a compact with Paulding County’s residents; we owe it to every taxpayer to use their money judiciously. I also want to ensure that system administration is using appropriate accounting practices to catch instances of waste, make educated decisions on purchases and forecasting system revenues so we don’t overextend our resources.

(AOG) How will you enlist support for bond issues or public schools spending from conservative voters or taxpayers with no children in the public schools? How can the school board prove itself accountable to those citizens?

(PB) Education has value for every member of the community – including those who have no children in the county schools. We all benefit from a well-educated population that graduates students who are prepared to enroll in postsecondary education, enlist or begin employment – and a robust, thriving and financially cautious school system is a prerequisite for a sound educational experience. As the representative from District 5, I would encourage holding public meetings at locations throughout the county to openly discuss the benefits (and acknowledge possible challenges) to assuming debt through bonds and inform the community on how their tax money is being spent. Scheduled board meetings leading up the vote must include opportunities for residents to ask questions and serve to allay concerns. This isn’t the school system’s money – it’s residents’ money, and they are entitled to their say. If residents have confidence that their money is being used wisely and understand the benefits – and if the school system is transparent in terms of risk – it’s my hope that even the most hesitant taxpayers will understand the necessity of growing and nurturing the educational experience for our children.

(AOG) What do you see as the opportunities and challenges in this district?

(PB) First, Paulding County must move away from the “Common Core” curriculum. Common Core has been a nightmare for educators (and parents) since it was instituted. The curriculum has been successful in helping children learn to work harder, but not smarter. We must be creative but firm in challenging Common Core with the state and enlist other regional leaders in the effort to wrest educational expectations from the state and return it to local control. Second, with my background in environmental science, I’d want to lead an effort to install solar panels atop our school facilities. Beyond the obvious environmental benefits, solar panels – which have become much less expensive in recent years – make sound financial sense, allowing our district to save on facilities costs and potentially even sell energy back to the power utilities. This could be an innovative way to free resources to support our educators, teach students about how we can impact our environment in positive ways and position Paulding County as an innovator among public school systems. Third, I want to cultivate gardens at each school, helping our students learn the same skills and value of work that generations of Paulding County residents before knew so well. Gardening is a hands-on way to teach planning, leadership and science. School safety is a topic that also merits discussion. I worry about the feasibility of arming educators and placing them in the untenable situation of being expected to discharge a firearm inside a school — safely, accurately and under duress. We do need to ensure that access to our campuses are controlled and tightly monitored, and we must have policies in place to empower administrators to control who can be on campus and under what circumstances. And finally, I want to find ways to encourage parental involvement with our schools. Parents are children’s first (and in ways, most influential) educators; their involvement is critical in helping them understand the challenges our schools face, as well as giving teachers and administrators better insight on how to positively impact students. When parents support schools and schools support parents, everyone wins and our children are guaranteed the quality education they deserve.

(AOG) In your view, what has the district done well over last 5 years? What has the district done poorly that you would change?

(PB) Implementing STEM programs in our schools is one of the school district’s top achievements in recent years. In addition, the district’s graduation rate has continued to improve, up more than 8 percent since 2011. Both are areas in which we need to focus our continued improvement. We can continue developing our STEM programs, building on the success of our growing robotics programs and creating opportunities for our children to learn hands-on applications for mathematics, science and engineering, not only in high school but beginning as early as fifth grade. We also need to continue improving our graduation rates; though we’re already exceeding the state rate by 4 percent, other districts are continuing to show improvement as well, and if we don’t push the envelope, we will be left behind.

(AOG) To what degree are students in this district on track for postsecondary readiness? How do you know?

(PB) According to GreatSchools.org, four out of Paulding County’s five high schools score 5 out of 10 in a metric that accounts for test scores, student progress (retention year-to-year) and equity (race/ethnicity along with percentage of students from lower income families). While none of the high schools are set in District 5, it’s vital the board works together to set and achieve higher standards. Pushing students to graduate is overly simplistic; our children must have a full understanding of all subjects covered over the 13 years they’re in our care, building on each year the knowledge and insight they need prepared to succeed in college, apprentice into a career or ably serve their nation. We need to focus our efforts on preparing students to enroll, find employment or enlist.

(AOG) What is the current per-pupil spending rate in the district? What does that mean?

(PB) Based on 2016 data — the most recent I could find — Paulding County spends just more than $7,400 per student, which is one of the lowest rates in metro Atlanta and stands well below the national average of almost $12,000 per student. Every county that borders ours spends more per student than Paulding County. Per pupil spending essentially figures the average total school system expenditure per child, including instructional costs and support services. Low per-student spending doesn’t itself mean that students are getting a sub-par education; it’s possible the school system is getting a tremendous value for its educational dollar. However, per student spending is also an important quality benchmark, like graduation rates and standardized tests. We need to evaluate our budget to ensure our children are receiving the education they deserve, commiserate with the other districts in our region.

(AOG) How should teacher performance be measured? What are some of the challenges inherent in evaluating teachers? What training do school leaders need to perform fair teacher evaluations? How should the district balance using evaluations for accountability and using them to help teachers improve?

(PB) How to evaluate the individuals willing to spend their careers preparing our own children for theirs? This is a complicated subject; if all things were equal, teacher evaluations would be simple, but things are neither equal nor simple. Teachers deserve a fair and impartial evaluation that includes an understanding that no two classrooms and no two students are the same — there are many mitigating circumstances, from parental involvement to different learning styles. Teachers face hard challenges beyond the scope of what’s expected of an educator. They have children in their classrooms dealing with hunger, homelessness, broken homes, loved ones with substance abuse issues and other matters that invariably impact students’ classroom performance. As fair as is possible, evaluations must ideally be conducted by an impartial reviewer, include quantifiable achievement benchmarks (though not necessarily standardized test scores, though these are an obvious starting place). I also would like to see an opportunity for parental input, to acknowledge those teachers who go above and beyond or shed light on those who are unresponsive to parental concerns. Evaluations and feedback are a critical part of any profession and are essential to professional development. Tenure is predicated on respect, which must be earned and serve as a reward for consistently successful instruction.

(AOG) In your past professional experience, what criteria do you use to make decisions about hiring people, retaining goods and services, or the effectiveness of a course of action? How will you use these criteria when making decisions as a school board member?

(PB) With nearly 10 years of retail experience, I’ve developed strong customer service skills — including negotiating a resolution to a contentious issue. Education is tightly regulated at the state and federal levels, with high stakes for continuing accreditation while ensuring our curriculum is appropriate for our children. Nonetheless, local school boards are not without their powers to negotiate reasonable and amenable solutions that address their unique needs. In retail leadership, my job is to walk a fine line between service to the customer and service to the company; as the board representative for District 5, I will use my experience to find the win-win for parents, students and the school district.

(AOG) What are your views on open data and transparency of information? What kinds of school district information should be made public?

(PB) State sunshine laws make it very clear that, aside from pending litigation, personnel matters or the most sensitive of student issues, all board business is pubic. The school system can always do a better job of advertising upcoming meetings, scheduling meetings when the public can attend and ensuring the public has the information and background to take part in discussions prior to votes.

(AOG) What specific steps would you take as a school board member to improve transparency and make school district information more widely available?

(PB) The board has already done much to improve transparency, including recording meetings and uploading them to YouTube for residents to watch at their leisure and utilizing social media to spread the word about the system’s news and events. I would like to see the board make a more concerted effort to make the decision-making process transparent, holding work sessions and voting meeting at times when working parents and taxpayers can attend, and even “taking the show on the road,” convening board meetings at schools around the district to make them more convenient for the public to be part of the board’s deliberations. Reorganizing the district’s website and instituting a newsletter (or e-newsletter) can also serve to facilitate the spread of information on school system business.

Matt Lowe was born in Helena, Montana and grew up in Austell, Ga. He attended South Cobb high school and Chattahoochee Tech. He is an avid outdoorsman. He lives with his wife and 7 children in Dallas, GA. If you’d like to follow more of Matt you can find him on Instagram and Facebook.

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