Submitted by the Kiwanis Club of Dalton
As state and federal contributions dry up and are not likely to return any time soon and local tax digests shrink, school systems are trying to do more for the community with less money.
Jim Hawkins, superintendent of Dalton Public Schools, told members of the Kiwanis Club of Dalton that “schools cannot do it alone.”
“Each student is unique and can learn more and at a higher level,” the speaker said. “The idea is that we can’t do batch processing anymore,” he said.
“Maybe 40 years ago a factory model of batch processing and you have homogeneous communities and homogeneous groups and all the kids have the same kind of background. It’s not like that anymore. We have to see each child and create systems that maximize their potential. Each student is unique and no matter where they are we’re not satisfied with what they’re learning right now. Whether they’re a special ed student or an Advanced Placement student, it doesn’t matter. We believe we can make a difference.”
Hawkins said a commitment to literacy is unique to our community. He stressed the importance of literacy for lifelong learning.
“Reading, writing, and communication is really, really important,” he said. “Education is essential to the well-being of each individual, the economy, and our democratic way of life. You heard that quote ‘God doesn’t make junk.’ Every child deserves that best education.”
Today’s schools are also training tomorrow’s workforce.
“Workforce development is a quality of life issue that is very, very important,” Hawkins said. “Our democracy and the way we do society is dependent on having an educated populous.”
“Maybe other than pastors, what we do in society is the next most important. I will concede that the spiritual realm is much more important, but after that I don’t care what your problem is education is the answer”
The veteran educator said the school system’s core business is “about providing experiences for students.” He said students are provided more than “those hardcore academic subjects.” The “soft skills” of creativity, respect and ethics are also taught.
“And with a flat world and technology there’s a lot of information out there, there’s a lot of information out there. But synthesizing it and putting it together and being able to distinguish between sense and nonsense and being a lifelong learner, it’s not about reciting stuff you find on Google. That’s not what school needs to be doing.”
“We need to recognize who our customers are,” Hawkins said. “Whether it be students in the classroom or what our employers and our college and universities need. Whatever that is, that’s our customer.”
The Kiwanians were shown a brief video of Joane Rosales, Dalton High School’s 2011 valedictorian. She explained that her family moved to Dalton from Venezuela “to give us a chance for a better education and for a better life.”
The move came when she was only 9.
“It was a little bit scary, but Dalton Public Schools made it a great transition for me,” she said.
She explained how Dalton Public Schools helped her from an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) program on to graduation at the highest level.
“I learned in Dalton Public Schools that there’s great diversity and I quickly began to learn that we all had something to offer,” Rosales said.
She is now attending Dalton State College majoring in biology and hopes to go on to medical school.
“There’s a lot of stories like mine where Dalton Public Schools commit to these students,” she said.
The system is said to help kids break through the language barrier and teaches them “about the community and really teaches them everything they need to know to be successful in the future.”
“Miss Rosales represents a lot of students who are in the demographic,” Hawkins explained. “We are not the Dalton that we were 10 years ago, almost five years ago, and out enrollment is still increasing.”
Funding is important
Hawkins expressed appreciation for area voters who approved of the new ESPLOST (Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax).
“Every time you go to the voters with a referendum it becomes more than what is on the ballot,” he said. “It almost becomes a referendum about trust and confidence and direction and all of that sort of thing.”
For the city schools, “It provides us some relief on operating funds.”
As the sales tax comes in, he said the school system hopes to, on a pay as you go basis, make the number one priority facility improvements at Dalton Middle School. The middle school student population continues to go he hopes “to get those kids out of trailers.”
Some work needs to be done at Morris Innovative High School to help students who “need a non-traditional, non-comprehensive high school.” And the system hopes to upgrade technology.
The DPS student enrollment has grown since over the past four years, but the superintendent sees a bubble ahead.
“The theory is that as the economy has gotten bad, people have moved back to home base,” Hawkins said. “They grew up in Dalton and went out somewhere else, even in the county, and when the recession came they moved back home to home base with some multiple families in one home.”
Hawkins said it looks like each grade level has a bubble coming. He believes the district student population and the population of Dalton Middle School will peek “in about five or six years.” The birthrate in the county has been down for five or six years now. The kids in those age groups will be in kindergarten this coming year.
“My theory is that if the birthrate keeps falling in the county and the economy gets better I think people will then move back out and our numbers will go down,” he said. He explained that schools are built for long-term use and should be constructed for a short-term use.
With that in mind, the ESPLOST funding will be used for an expansion of the middle school cafeteria, building a new gym and add an eight-room addition that, if not needed in a few years, can “very easily be converted to a black box theater.” The middle school currently has no theater. If converted, the theater could also be used as the performing arts theater that many in the community want.
State funding cuts will apparently continue to effect the salaries of educators.
“In the past we’ve had to make some huge cuts in terms of days and salaries. Teachers took about 10 days worth of cuts. They are on a 10-month salary, so they’re taking like a half a month pay cut over their 10-month contracts. Central office people and most principals who are 12 month took a 20-day cut. None of that has comeback at this point. Costs keep going up.”
The school superintendent said previous state budget levels will not be coming back anytime soon.
“(State Senator) Charlie Bethel finally looked me in the eye one day and said ‘Jim, it’s not coming back.’ The state piece is the one that has really hit us hard. They’ve cut about 20 percent of the state funding which is half of our income.”
“The reality I think is that even if the money comes back, if the economy gets better, I don’t think it will go to education. Education is right around 50 percent of the state budget now and I don’t see them putting anymore into it.”
Hawkins said the Whitfield County School System has been hit even harder by state funding cuts.
“They are about 70 percent dependent on the state. The reason is within out boundaries we have much more property. We’re about 70 percent industrial commercial taxes and about 30 percent residential. As a quality of life and a quality of where we live, that’s the right mix.”
Hawkins said the city system’s local tax digest has stabilized.
“We don’t understand why, but it has,” he added.
But funding from the state is seen as being at “a new normal.”
“The federal bubble hasn’t burst yet, but it will. It’s a matter of when and how much. And we’ll have to decide on all of those federally funded programs. Do we cut somewhere else in order to replace what the lost federal funds?”
He said the system is prepared for about a 10 percent reduction from the federal side. This could include Title I programs as well as free and reduced lunch.
The speaker credits cooperation between the two school systems, the city and county governments, the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce and the University of Georgia’s Archway Program for educating the public on the importance of the ESPLOST.
“Guys it wasn’t like that when I came here four years ago,” he added.
The cooperation also gave “commitment to this literacy idea.” Educators are working to prepare kids for school with an early prenatal to pre-K emphasis. “It’s becoming a community effort,’ he said.
The Kiwanians were encouraged to take advantage of opportunities to help students with reading in school and “even in those early years prenatal to preschool.”