All on Georgia (AOG) had a discussion with Trudy Sowar (TS) regarding her run for the Board of Education.
First, a little bit about her background. Mrs. Sowar is from Bremen, Georgia. She attended Auburn University from 1966 to 1969 then transferred to Georgia State University where she graduated Summa Cum Laude. Mrs. Sowar began her career as a paraprofessional in Cobb County; ended as the school superintendent in Paulding County. Some of the honors and awards from her career include:
- First Georgia PTA Superintendent of the Year
- President of Georgia School Superintendents Association
- Georgia representative on the American Association of School Administrators Board of Directors
- Georgia Association of Educational Leaders Board of Directors
- Georgia School Superintendents Board of Directors
- Bill Barr Leadership Award (awarded yearly to the superintendent who best exemplifies the willingness and ability to identify, mentor and support future educational leaders. Individuals are nominated by the 18 RESAs across the state and committee of peers evaluate and select)
- Represented Georgia Leadership Institute for School Improvement (GLISI) at Harvard University
- Council member Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education
- Implemented a Teacher Leader Program
Following are some Questions along with Mrs. Sowar’s answers. These answers are 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?
(TS) As superintendent of the Paulding County School District from September 1999 until December 2008, I was directly responsible for developing and presenting the school district budgets during a time when we were consistently in the top five fastest growing counties in the nation. Our student population grew from just over 15,000 to almost 27,000 in that period of time. We were growing at a rate of one classroom every day and a half. That is the equivalent of one to two schools each year. We had very little commercial tax base so the burden fell to the property owners. That has changed very little even with the development of the commercial areas in Hiram and Crossroads.
Employee salaries and benefits account for 92% of the school district budget. When I became superintendent, we had a reserve of less than a million dollars. Because the state allots the money they contribute to school districts on a monthly basis, districts must accrue a reserve in order to pay salaries of their existing teachers plus any new staff required by growth until the property taxes begin coming in toward the end of November or early December. Our monthly payroll was around $15 million so this is a substantial expenditure. We built a reserve consistent with our needs in order to avoid the practice of TANS (Tax Anticipation Notes) to avoid the additional expense of interest payments. Bottom line, I know how to build and follow a complicated budget that is good for the system. It is critical to note that this is a team effort……the superintendent, the leadership team, the local schools and ultimately, the board are all involved.
I joined the Georgia School Boards Association in January 2008 as Director of Risk Management Services. We provided Workers Comp and Property and Casualty coverage for over a hundred of the 180 school districts in Georgia through a pool. Our own former school board member and State Representative Howard Maxwell was instrumental in establishing the WC Fund in 1992. I was responsible for the budgeting and management of three distinct budgets; the Workers Comp budget, the Risk Management (Property and Casualty) and the combined Funds budget. In my last two years with GSBA, I was also responsible for the Superintendent Search Services budget. It is noteworthy that during my tenure as Director of Risk Management Services our combined net assets increased by $38.7 million and our membership increased by 28%. Again, I know how to develop, manage and understand complex budgets.
(AOG) How will you enlist support for bond issues or public-school spending from conservative voters or taxpayers with no children in the public schools? How can the school board prove itself accountable to those citizens?
(TS) Again, I have a record of having done this. We passed multiple bond and SPLOST referendums when I was superintendent. We built several new schools and upgraded or added to many others. We were able to do this because of the support and commitment of our community, the strength of our PTAs, the competence of our staff and the out and out hard work of our citizens and staff. I truly believe that if you involve and inform people of the need for a bond or SPLOST, show them what you intend to do, explain what can and can’t be done with the proceeds, report the collections and expenditures and do what you say you’re going to do, the support will be there. The district now has the tools and information is available to the public to see progress of ongoing bond or SPLOST projects. You will always have naysayers but you have to do what you know to be in the best interest of the students. Many people were upset because we upgraded all our high schools to include a second gym and added performing arts theatres. I challenge anyone to argue their usefulness today. Our students deserve no less than their counterparts in neighboring districts and, I believe, our parents want no less. Paulding County High School, our flagship high school, looks just a nice as any of our newer facilities. I am proud of our bond and SPLOST work.
Our country was founded upon an educated citizenry and our way of life is dependent on having educated citizens willing and able to exercise their democratic rights and responsibilities. More than 90% of Georgia’s students today are educated in the public schools. We all have a responsibility to contribute to the education of our children. Our own future depends on it.
Let’s take a hypothetical look at local funding. The median price home in Paulding is valued at $165,000. The school tax on that house is $1208.25. That number is based on a 40% assessed value of $66,000. The school tax portion is $1246.01 less the standard exemption resulting in a school tax of $1208.25. The average household in Paulding has 2.9 children. For the sake of argument let’s round up to 3. At today’s local per pupil expenditure of $2501.77, it is costing $7505.31 in local taxes to educate those three children but the house is only generating $1208.25 resulting in a deficit of $6297.06. That is a very crude calculation but it illustrates the fact that education is what one generation gives to the next.
(AOG) What do you see as the challenges and opportunities in this district?
(TS) I believe our opportunities and our challenges are one and the same; growth and the associated issues. If you attended the March 13th board meeting, the demographic presentation points to another increase in student population. Residential growth without commensurate growth in the business/industrial tax base continues to place the burden on property taxes. We have a choice as a community. We can either plan and work together to manage it or we can pay the price. By “we”, I mean the board, the commission, and the entire community. This is why I have listed community engagement as one of my priorities. The students are coming. Will we be prepared?
(AOG) In your view, what has the district done well over the last five years? What has the district done poorly that you would change?
(TS) The district has been managed well in a time of austerity cuts in state funding. Most people don’t realize that we are spending less money per student in local funds today than when I left in FY 2008. The demands haven’t lessened. District cost for health benefits for teachers has increased 103% since 2012. Expenses for electricity, gas, water, and other things we all depend on at our homes have increased for the district as well. At the same time, the leadership has developed an aggressive strategic plan which guides the district. It is most impressive! I challenge you to read and follow the progress. I have no criticism to make.
(AOG) To what degree are students in this district on track for postsecondary readiness? How do you know?
(TS) The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, in coordination with the Georgia Department of Education, is required by law to rate individual school district’s per-pupil expenditures in relation to the academic achievement of its students. The Financial Efficiency Star Rating utilizes a three-year average of per-pupil expenditures and College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI) scores to determine a district’s rating. In FY 2017, only twelve (12) of the one hundred eighty (180) districts in the state scored higher than Paulding County. One hundred fifty (150) scored lower and seventeen (17) the same. Of the thirty-five (35) largest districts in the state of which Paulding is thirteenth (13th), only five (5) scored higher, twenty-six (26) lower and three (3) scored the same. While we will never be satisfied until all students graduate from high school prepared to go on to college, technical school, the military or directly into the workforce, the citizens of Paulding County can be proud of the quality and value of the education provided by the school district. I am very excited about the new College and Career Academy and the opportunities that are now available to our students.
(AOG) What is the current per-pupil spending rate in the district? What does that mean?
(TS) The current per-pupil expenditure is $8770.16. That number is the total budget of $255,685,296.86 divided by the student enrollment. It is important to note that the number is dynamic because of enrollments and withdrawals throughout the year. The local portion of this expenditure is $2501.77 or 28.3%. The largest portion of the per-pupil expenditure is in the “bucket” labeled instruction. That is primarily the salary and benefits of the instructional staff. Additional examples include transportation at $15.8 million and M&O (Maintenance and Operations) at $17.5 million. Administrative costs have consistently remained among the five or so lowest districts in the state. I refer readers back to the previous response. When you consider that Paulding is 152 of the 180 districts in the state in per pupil expenditures yet only 12 districts scored higher on the CCRPI I submit we are getting an incredible value for our dollar. A huge thank you to all who made that possible.
(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?
(TS) Teacher evaluation is a complex process that goes far beyond test scores. I believe that teaching is a calling; that teaching is both an art and a science. There are far too many variables to base continued employment on test scores. Students come to school at dramatically different places developmentally and experientially. Some have been read to every day since they were babies; some have never held a book. Some have traveled outside the country; some have never left their neighborhood. It may surprise you to learn that 51% of children under age five live in low income families. More than one-third of these children live in communities of concentrated poverty. More than one-third have experienced life events that lead to trauma or toxic stress. There is no simple answer to how teachers should be evaluated. This has been studied and pondered for decades. In the 1980’s we had the GTDRI (Georgia Teacher Duties and Responsibilities Instrument), the GTOI (Georgia Teacher Observation Instrument), and the GLEI (Georgia Leadership Evaluation Instrument). Today we have TEAKES (Teacher Keys Effectiveness Training) for teachers and LEAKES (Leader Keys Effectiveness System) for administrators. Teachers and administrators are trained in the processes and results are used to support those needing additional training or other support. These are better instruments but because what educators do is far different from making widgets, I believe this will remain a challenge. Teachers know who the great teachers are…….and so do the students!
(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?
(TS) As former Associate Superintendent for Human Resources in the Paulding County School District, I am extremely proud of the staff. Many of the current leadership staff began their careers as teachers in the district. In making hiring decisions, it is absolutely essential that the candidate meet the minimum criteria of the announcement in terms of skills and expertise. That is a given and applies to anyone seeking the position. Beyond that, I believe it is also important that the candidate have what are often referred to as “the soft skills”. Can the person get along? Can the person integrate into the existing team? Are there issues that may impact the candidate’s ability to be a positive addition to the staff? These things are only revealed by a thorough reference check. This step must not be overlooked or shortcuts taken. Candidates must be thoroughly vetted. It is important to note that the only person the board hires directly is the superintendent. The remaining staff are hired by the board upon the recommendation of the superintendent. For that reason, the board must have a clear understanding of the hiring process and trust that the superintendent is adhering to the process and the law.
Goods and services should be subject to ongoing evaluation. Issues and successes should be noted, addressed and documented as they occur. Input of those using the goods and services should be sought and heeded in the decision process. Whether we are considering goods and services or a course of action, we should consistently seek to improve by asking, “How could we do this better?”
(AOG) What are your views on open data and transparency of information? What kinds of school district information should be made public?
(TS) We are called public school for a reason. We exist to serve the public and are accountable to the public. In my opinion, anything not covered under FERPA (Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act) or anything of a personal nature pertaining to staff should be available to the public. I know that the district posts the budget, test scores, meeting agendas, directory information, SPLOST, bond, news, schedules, etc. I am not aware of information that is not available.
(AOG) What specific steps would you take as a school board member to improve transparency and make school district information more widely available?
(TS) If there is information that is not available but is requested, I would ask that it be made available absent any legal reason to do otherwise.