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Posted: July 18, 2010 12:00 a.m.

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Candidates answer questions posed at Chamber forum

The Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce held the Primary season’s final political forum at the Covington Branch Library July 8, playing host to 2010 Newton County Board of Commissioners and Board of Education candidates. Each set of candidates was asked one question by the chamber, followed by questions from the audience.

Below are the questions asked to the BOC candidates and their responses. District 2 challengers Democrat Lanier Sims and Republican Rickie Corley did not attend. 
Chamber Question: "How do you see the roles between the chamber and the BOC in regard to future economic development efforts for Newton County?”

Democratic incumbent Commissioner J.C. Henderson said he wants to ensure that industries locating in Newton County hire local workers. He said when SKC came to the county in 1996 it brought a majority of its workers with it from other plants. He added that if anyone wants to get his thoughts on any issue they can call him on his cell phone at (770) 866-3621.

Democratic challenger Kenneth Hardeman had a three-fold vision for future economic development efforts: form partnerships between industry and business, help the chamber sell Newton County and plan for the future.

District 2 Democratic incumbent Earnest Simmons said the chamber’s roles were to be a cheerleader for the county and a facilitator between business and the county. He said the role of the board of commissioners was to be a bridge builder to secure the businesses that are interested in the county. He said the county recently made a $120,500 investment in the chamber to say “We believe in you. We 
stand by you.”

Editor's Note: On Dec. 15, the BOC 3-2 voted to increase the chamber's funding for the remainder of FY2010 and FY2011. Simmons voted in opposition to the increase because he did believe the board should be making decisions on FY2011 spending prior to seeing the budget.

Question 2: “If it was necessary to maintain the current reduced level of services, would you be prepared to raise taxes?”

Henderson said in 2008 the county took about $1.5 million from the fund balance to balance the budget. He said at the time everyone said the situation was fine, but he said that wasn’t true. He said people made fun of him for speaking in favor of spending and hiring freezes in early 2009, but he knew a downturn was coming. He believes if the county watches its dollars and cents it will be OK, but he added the county still needs another source of income. He said if the county privatized the landfill it could get a large influx of money like the city received when it sold its cable system.

Hardeman said he is never a proponent of raising taxes, but if the county wants to maintain its level of services, it may have to. He said if a business is not making enough money it has to raise prices. The county is providing services to people, and they have to pay for them, he said. However, he will also look at the budget forensically to see if more cuts can be made.

Simmons said if the county keeps laying off workers, services will be affected. He said if residents want to be assured of having a fast response when they call 911, they need to be willing to pay for that service. He said District 2 is one of the most heavily populated districts, and, if services are cut they will affect his constituents every day. He said a millage rate increase will be the last resort, but he won’t put his district at risk. He said once the digest starts growing, the BOC can always vote on the rollback rate to lower the millage rate.

Question 3: “What are the three major concerns facing the BOC?”
Simmons said his three most important concerns were improving transportation infrastructure to help his district’s commuters, bringing in more businesses and industry to balance the tax digest and bringing in more amenities while maintaining a small-town feel. He said the county was ready to approve any incentive packages necessary to draw industry, assuming the county would get its investment back over time.

Hardeman said maintaining safety for residents and businesses in a growing county, increasing the tax base to be able to provide more services to residents and keeping people in the loop about the decisions of government were his three concerns.

Henderson’s three concerns were the needs of public safety, especially considering people were sleeping on the floor at the detention center, providing adequate county services to residents and providing community centers for children so they stay off the streets and out of trouble. He said the community can’t continue to pay to house children in jail but instead needs to spend more money up front on recreation and tutoring.

Board of Education
Local Board of Education candidates participated in a Q&A at the Covington Branch Library July 8, hosted by the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce. District 3 Democratic candidate Toney D. Collins and District 5 Democratic candidate Sharon Sawyer did not attend.

Chamber Question: “How do you anticipate, with state and local revenue reductions, you will balance the budget if elected to the Board of Education?”

District 1
Republican Ron Hart said the budget is prepared by the superintendent’s office first and foremost. However, he said he would try to keep teachers and Para pros if possible. If that was not possible, he would ask teachers whether they would prefer cuts or furloughs. He would make sure to cut administrative positions, not just teachers. Finally, if the tax base increases, he would use the rollback rate to reduce taxes if the school system could afford it.

Republican Jeff Meadors said it was very clear that the state has been underfunding the county school system since 2003, in excess of $21 million. He said state funding is important, and one of the best things BOE candidates can do is be advocates with the state legislature. Locally, he said the BOE is part of the Leadership Collaborative, and the BOE needs to work with that group to develop plans to attract retail development and retain sales tax dollars in Newton County. He said as a 23-year educator he would use his experience to maximize the use of the current facilities.

Republican Dale Thompson said he would communicate with the constituency to seek their ideas. He said the state has constantly experienced decreased revenues and he believes the Newton County School System needs to look for more grants and consider charging fees for certain programs to raise revenues. He said he would try to benchmark the local operating costs with other counties budgets to see if anything else could be found.

District 3
Democrat Christine Young-Brown said she wants Newton County to have the best education system. She said she would try to partner with the business community. She said there is an urgent need for a national education policy and she would lobby for more federal action. She said she had most local legislators in her phone already and would continue to communicate with them. She also thought some of the money from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should be shifted to education.
Democrat Pamela Consuegra said everyone knows the problems and she is ready to find solutions. She said it’s no surprise the NCSS has not been given proper state and federal funding. She would look for guidance from other school systems to see what they’re doing and listen to ideas from constituents. She would also consider ways to deal with the issue of buses leaving schools half empty and might look to lower administrator pay. At the same time, she said she would trust the current superintendent.

Democrat Shakila Henderson-Baker said she would seek to take the anticipation factor out of the local budget formula, because the local system would continue to be underfunded. She said will lobby at the state, which has continued to cut the education budget and recently decided to eliminate school class size requirements.

She would also trust the new superintendent but wouldn’t necessarily say “yes” to everything. Previous board members disagreed with cutting Para pros, which is why they remained in the budget, she said. She said she would also look at early retirement options and seek to partner with local businesses.

Democrat James Johnson said it’s easy to be an armchair quarterback regarding the budget. He said it costs about $5.36 per child per day to educate a child, and the school system can’t afford to cut much more. He said he would review the budget line by line to make any difficult cuts. Johnson said he experienced furloughs first hand at DeKalb Technical College. He said he would consult financial experts and look at other counties’ plans, like Gwinnett County, in order to develop a step-by-step action plan.

Republican Kevin Wade said it’s very difficult to assume what the budget will look like next year. He said 87 percent of the budget is made up of salaries, so the board can only be creative with the remaining 13 percent. He said he would use his experience as an accountant to go through the budget line by line and look for possible cuts. He said NCSS should look at the private school system, like the Ron Clark Academy, which has private sponsors. He said he would also look for any opportunity to outsource operations to save money.

District 5
Republican Abigail Coggin-Morgan said she didn’t have all the answers. She agreed she would have to lobby, because the majority of school money comes from the state. She said the school’s need the help of the chamber and other business leaders to lobby as well. She said she feels passionate about lobbying the state to give the local school system more control over state funding, so they could use SPLOST and other funds for things other than building new buildings. Covington may need that money to keep programs and teachers employed. She also said communicating with and educating the general public about the school budget process is important, so they can be informed and lobby as well.

Question 2: Newton County is now on the lower scale when it comes to system rankings Our neighboring county is one of the highest. What are your thoughts about getting people excited about moving to this county and improving the students’ school experience and the graduation rate of our children?

District 3
Wade said he would see what that other county is doing and whether their methods could be implemented here. In addition, he said he would work to get businesses involved and try to partner with corporate America to find a new revenue source.

Johnson said his work at DeKalb Tech allows him to see the results of the NCSS first hand. He said Rockdale County recently opened up a career academy which will help kids transition to college. He said Newton County is in the process of opening its own academy and can begin to see similar results in three to four years. He said other steps the system can take is to get parents more involved and promote dual and joint-enrollment programs with the four higher-education institutions in the county.

Henderson-Baker said she is a product of the NCSS and believes it is producing quality students. She said the system needs to do a better job of promoting the successes of the NCSS. However, the school system does need to realize that many children were born to very young, uninformed parents, and it takes more effort to get those parents involved. She also talked about getting students to college and getting the local colleges more involved. Finally, people have to spend locally to boost the tax base and increase funding, like Rockdale County.

Consuegra agreed that positive public relations is incredibly important. She said the high schools report their successes, but many of the middle and elementary schools aren’t in the spotlight. As far as other counties, she said the NCSS needs to study those counties with similar budget constraints and their successes. She said Newton County is poised for success with its theme and charter schools and other options. Finally, she said it’s very difficult to teach curricula to such varying levels of students, and the school system needs to do a better job of making sure children are hitting certain acheivement marks.

Brown said she would focus on more reasonable testing, try to lessen the importance of testing and not teach the test as much. She said the school system needs to prepare kids for a global workplace, offer input on the curriculum to parents and bring back graduation coaches. Editor’s note: Graduation coaches have been reinstated for FY2011.

District 5
Morgan-Coggin said it goes back to a lack of communication. She said two years ago a teacher at Fiquett Elementary won a national science award, but it was never publicized. She said the NCSS needs to promote what it already has and continue to develop resources like the career academy.

District 1
Thompson said quality drives people anywhere. In business, people look for quality products, and quality schools will attract people and businesses. He moved to Newton County because of the school system. He said the school system needs to promote work ready programs and the career academy to attract industry and improve the overall quality of the community.

Meadors said he has made 129 visits to local high schools in Newton and Rockdale counties, and he said he works with the local employees to give kids options. He said he’s had a chance to look at the detailed plans of the career academy and believes it’s going to be amazing. He said the local graduation rate is about 83 percent, higher than many other communities. However, the dropout rate is different and sometimes deceptive; regardless, good things are happening in Newton County. He said Morgan County is also having successes, like with its international baccalaureate program, which the chamber could feature in the future and attract business.

Hart also believes public relations is a key, and said the superintendent needs to make sure the media is informed about all of the good things happening in the schools. He said the NCSS needs to be proactive in disseminating information.
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