Standing only feet from their boss, a handful of Cobb County School District employees asked the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday to reject Superintendent Chris Ragsdale’s request for money that would fund the completion of a long-planned online learning system.
Ragsdale said the coronavirus and consequent move to virtual learning has made completion of the program necessary. But two teachers, a former school psychologist as well as incoming school board member Leroy “Tre” Hutchins and others said county assistance would be better spent on getting students laptops and purchasing more personal protective equipment before the district’s schools reopen Aug. 17.
“I stand before you requesting several things,” Hutchins told commissioners, including “that we remove the Cobb County School District request for funds for (the online learning system) from today’s voting agenda. And I believe that will allow our superintendent, Superintendent Ragsdale, an opportunity to present again with a more thorough and comprehensive list of need.”
Nevertheless, commissioners approved Ragsdale’s request in a 3-2 vote, with Lisa Cupid of south Cobb and Keli Gambrill of west Cobb in opposition.
‘DISRESPECTFUL’Cupid in particular had harsh words for the superintendent.
A day earlier, the commissioner said she thought Ragsdale was putting the cart before the horse by requesting money for an online learning system when some students don’t have computers or an internet connection with which to access it.
Tuesday, Cupid said she had “even more overarching concerns than the substance of what I discussed yesterday.”
Her voice rising, Cupid said members of the Cobb County Board of Education told her they had learned more about the district’s request watching Ragsdale’s presentation at the work session than they had from the superintendent himself.
Ragsdale denied the charge, saying the online learning system has been years in the making.
“We have had numerous presentations for numerous years on CTLS,” he said, referring to the online learning system. “I made the Board of Education aware before I sent the proposal to the Board of Commissioners. And then we have had a formal presentation, as a matter of fact, at the request of the board member, at the last board meeting.”
Cupid cut him off.
“I’m going to interrupt you right there because I was getting very frustrated,” Cupid said, “because for somebody to say that they’ve discussed the subject matter for years, doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve received authorization to go appeal for somebody to make a formal decision on that.
“I will give you an example,” she continued. “We have been discussing (bus rapid transit) in the county. It has never been approved on an agenda. So to think our county manager should go shop around to get funding for something which has been discussed in this county for years, because they brought it to our attention and gave us a presentation (but) have not received formal authorization — and you think that’s OK and that passes muster? It does not. I find that … completely to be disrespectful of my peers (on the Board of Education).”
Commission Chairman Mike Boyce said he understood Cupid’s concerns.
“But here’s the real issue in my eyes,” he said: Declining tax revenues caused by the coronavirus meant the district will have to slash $62 million from its budget, which Ragsdale will unveil Thursday. “There’s no way this board can address all those needs related to COVID-19 if we wanted to still also address the other issues that have been thrown in our lap.
“That $8.1 million could go to the other items you’re talking about: PPE or sanitation or (internet) hotspots,” Boyce continued. “It wouldn’t matter. There are just simply so many requests out there, we can’t simply meet all of them. So the bottom line here is do I believe your requests meets the criteria that’s been provided to us by the federal government? The answer is, yes, it does.”
PLANSSpeaking after the meeting, Ragsdale said he had not asked the commissioners for personal protective equipment because he didn’t want to return to the Board of Commissioners in the event the district underestimates how much it needed. He can instead ask the Cobb school board to furnish the money, he added.
“For us to come (to the Board of Commissioners) and say, ‘OK, we need this much today but we might need to come back to you if we need more,’ that’s just not fair,” he said.
The school district’s budget includes millions for personal protective equipment, he said. But he declined to say how much, arguing it would be inappropriate to discuss the budget before the school board has had an opportunity to review it.
Ragsdale said the district is also planning to continue providing students with computers if needed.
“We know there’s going to be a need,” he said. “Now, what level? We’ll have to determine that.”
If the district were ordered to move all its instruction online, however — which could happen should the coronavirus continue its surge, Ragsdale warned — he could not promise that every student who needs a computer will get one.
“I can’t go so far to say (that),” he said. “Recall, we got 113,000 students, and we don’t have 113,000 devices nor funding to purchase 113,000. I do feel confident that we can meet the majority of needs of those families needing devices.”
MARIETTAIn other business, the Board of Commissioners postponed a vote on a similar request from the superintendent of Marietta City Schools.
Commissioners said they needed more time to review Superintendent Grant Rivera’s answers to questions they had submitted about his request.
Rivera’s $2.96 million ask includes, but is not limited to: $233,000 for “desk and table shields,” almost $50,000 in personal protective equipment, $239,000 in cleaning supplies and the manpower needed to disinfect schools, almost $800,000 in Chromebooks, more than $800,000 to provide internet to students who don’t already have it “lest they fall behind,” and $300,000 for substitute teachers for “COVID-19-related absences.”
They will hear Rivera’s request at the board’s July 28 meeting.