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Thursday, April 24, 2014 - 6:56am

Savannah School Board President Candidates Talk Funding, Improvement At Forum

Candidates for school board president debated how to close gaps between schools and make the best use of funding at a forum hosted by the Downtown Neighborhood Association Wednesday evening.

Four of the five candidates for president of the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System board attended the meeting.

Sadie Brown, Jolene Byrne, Chester Ellis, and George Seaborough laid out their qualifications and their plans for improving the school system to the meeting of downtown residents. David Simons was unable to attend.

The forum came just under a month ahead of the May 20 election.

The candidates agreed on at least one central point: that there are large disparities between high-performing schools like Savannah Arts Academy and Woodville Tompkins High and other, struggling schools. All four listed closing those gaps among their chief priorities.

Byrne made a central point of the need to “replicate” what works at successful schools. It’s important, she said, for the district to give “students at other schools the same opportunities we’re giving students at schools that are working.”

Seaborough agreed, praising administrators at East Broad Street School for working with the higher-performing Charles Ellis Montessori on ways to improve. More school principals should get together in roundtable discussions to “find what works,” he said.

Brown stressed the need for consistency, noting that schools in the district share many of the same standards, but “the implementation may be different.”

Ellis touched on another point where the candidates could agree: parental involvement. He attributed much of the success of Savannah Arts Academy to its strong emphasis on keeping parents involved in their children’s education. Many parents, he said, disengage as their kids reach middle and high school.

Funding was another hot topic for the candidates, who all said they would reevaluate the district’s spending.

“We do not do a good job of taking care of our tax money,” Ellis said, echoing the general sentiment. All the candidates said they would look at where the district needs to spend and where it should cut back.

Seaborough and Byrne added the school district should work on winning more grants to fund special programs. “We need to make sure we’re going for every grant dollar out there,” Seaborough said.

Asked point-blank if they would seek to raise property taxes to fund the schools, Byrne and Seaborough both said they would not, though Byrne said she would consider it if the district lost state funding. Brown and Ellis both said any moves on property taxes would depend on the district’s needs.

In their closing remarks, all four candidates stressed their individual connections and experiences with Savannah-Chatham County schools.

Brown is a retired teacher and current substitute and said that because of that experience, “I know that I can have a voice for the most important people we serve, and that’s our children.”

As a current parent and former teacher, Byrne said she was more than familiar with the needs of schools.

“I live this every day,” said Byrne

Ellis pointed to his experience in school leadership, especially in working on Woodville Tompkins High. It’s key, he said, to know what the district has done in the past in order to move it forward.

Seaborough stressed the need to think beyond the schools themselves. “Our entire community fails” when education fails, he said, adding he that he is “running to unite the community.”

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