October 13, 2013

Candidate profile: Steve Laird looks to early education to improve graduation rates

By Christopher Smith

— After Steve Laird met Tristen Harrell, a student struggling in sixth grade, through his wife, Dalton Middle School teacher Bett, Laird took Harrell under his wing, he said.

Laird said by encouraging Harrell to set a goal to graduate high school he saw firsthand how well the city school system can work. Harrell graduated and now attends Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala.

That shows the successful side of Dalton Public Schools, Laird said. And that’s one of the reasons he’s running for a spot on the Dalton Board of Education.

Early voting begins Monday with the general election set for Nov. 5. Laird is running against Dr. Pablo Perez for the seat currently held by Mark Orr. Orr did not seek re-election this year.

What are the other reasons Laird wants to run? His children, Dalton High graduates Daniel and Beth, and every one of the approximately 7,500 students who walk through city schools each day, Laird said.

“I care a lot about the community,” he said. “The (school system’s) 2012 annual report showed an 80 percent graduation rate out of the Dalton Public Schools system. I doubt we could ever get it to 100, but I would like to get it closer to that number.”

To get graduation rates up, Laird says he wants to invest in early childhood programs that can help students by the third grade start to get on track to graduate.

That requires a “concentrated effort by the school system and parents,” he said.

And funding.

Sequestration — resulting in a big budget cut to federally funded agencies including early childhood education programs in the area — claimed Westside Head Start in Tunnel Hill this July. The 50-year-old program closed its doors and turned out 59 children from low-income homes to find somewhere else to get early childhood education.

Laird said school board members should see what financial options they have to invest into programs threatened by such cuts. He said he also recognizes the need for tight budgeting, pointing to Dalton Mayor David Pennington as someone who has “done a good job with revenue and expenses and how you can maintain a certain tax level.”

How would Laird, who has a background as a certified public accountant and now crunches numbers as a contract administrator for Shaw Industries, handle the school budget?

“You establish goals, put in accountability, and you have to stay focused on number one,” he said. “Number one is the children’s education.”

A budget projection provided by the school system assumes $59.6 million in revenue and $64.2 million in expenses for fiscal year 2014, which began in July. An estimate for fiscal year 2015, which begins on July 1, 2014, assumes about $64 million in revenue and $75 in expenses.

School officials have been relying on a rainy day fund — which will be down to about $4.52 million after this year — to cover budget deficits and stave off a tax increase, but that option could be exhausted next year if projections hold.

Laird said he would have to “get all the facts” before telling taxpayers how he would handle the budget, and said he wants to see more benchmarking, such as periodic reviews. Current school board members have said a tax increase is likely if their rainy day fund dries up. That’s unless other funding, or budget cuts, can’t be found. Laird says he “doesn’t favor” a tax increase.

“You know, you have to look at what’s available from a federal and state standpoint. I don’t know what’s available,” he said. “I have to get deeper into the details. One thing I like to do is communicate and I’d like to communicate when I have facts.”

Communication is key for any school board member, Laird said.

“We have a responsibility to be accountable to the taxpayers,” he said. “There is a  responsibility to provide them with not just good information, but the information we have to work on. Accountability and communication is key for us as a board.”