The district includes Lakeside, Tucker and Elizabeth Andrews high schools.
Womack, 79, of the Briarlake/Lakeside area served four terms on the DeKalb School Board from 1981 through 1992 and is running for the second term of his comeback.
He is chairman and CEO of Mobility Designs Inc., a company that specializes in the rehabilitation of children and adults with mobility issues.
His opponents are Tucker resident Tom Gilbert, 68, a “pro account” sales associate at the Home Depot store off Wesley Chapel Road; Tucker resident Jim Kinney, 49, a systems engineer for IBM Security Systems; and Jim McMahan, 46, a loan originator for Amstar Mortgage Network and “stay-at-home dad” who lives in the Clairmont/Briarcliff area.
Womack said he is running again to finish what’s been started.
“I’m trying to ensure that this financial mess we’re in is brought to a successful resolution,” he said.
The School Board voted this month to raise taxes for the first time in 10 years. The 1-mill increase will help plug an $85 million shortfall for the 2012-2013 operating budget of $760 million.
Womack voted against the tax hike and recently led several board members who called for a state investigation of the school system’s Finance and Human Resources departments. The board voted down their motion to ask the governor’s office to investigate in a 5-4 vote on July 9.
Gilbert said he is running because he hopes to make things better for children. He has two grandchildren in DeKalb schools and believes his experience in analyzing spending and working with large budgets would be an asset.
“We just need a good dose of common sense over there,” Gilbert said.
Kinney, who has a master’s degree in physics and has taught on the college level, said he’s running because of his experience with the management chain in the school system.
“There’s a focus on management, not a focus on education,” Kinney said. “After seeing the stuff going on at the schools, I can take a back seat no longer.”
McMahan has daughters at Sagamore Hills Elementary School and Henderson Middle School and serves on the school council of both. Last year, he was area leader for the DeKalb County Council of PTAs, presiding over the Lakeside High School cluster of schools.
McMahan said he thinks he can build community support for the schools and consensus on the School Board. He believes his experience in finance will help him decipher the budget.
“My experience inside the schools gives me a unique perspective on what needs to be done,” McMahan said.
The tax hike passed by the school system will raise the tax rate to 23.98 mills and cost the owner of a $100,000 house $27.50 more a year in property taxes.
In addition to Womack, board members Nancy Jester, Don McChesney and Pam Speaks voted against the measure.
The board also is considering laying off 250 teachers and 120 paraprofessionals at savings of $16.7 million. The teacher cuts, which include 120 pre-k teachers the school district proposes to rehire with a subsidy provided by the state, would save $14 million, and the paraprofessionals cut would save $2.7 million.
Addressing the budget was high on the candidates’ lists of the top three issues they would face as board members.
“We need have to clean up the finance process,” Kinney said. “We’re still trying to dig out of the mess from having a crook and his cronies running the school system. We have to establish more checks and balances. It’s only going to get uglier because we have to air everything out.”
Kinney said the school system is suffering from “stupid planning, stupid ideas, stupid implementation.”
He also said social promotion needs to be addressed. He talked of seventh-graders who read on the third-grade level.
“I have heard teachers complain about it,” he said.
“We’ve got to fix some of the serious academic faults we have,” he said. “If kids can’t read on grade level, they can’t leave that grade until they do.”
Gilbert said the top issues facing the school system are the budget; ensuring every child a quality, basic education; and addressing the layoffs of special education paraprofessionals.
“I think we’re not in compliance with federal laws,” he said.
High on McMahan’s list are accountability for everyone, “instruction before construction,” and fiscal responsibility.
McMahan said he uses a contract that holds administrators, teachers, students, and parents and guardians accountable for what’s expected of them.
Lawsuits and capital improvements have been taking up much of the school system’s time, he said.
“Remember our No. 1 goal: The sole purpose of the school system is the education of DeKalb,” McMahan said.
Womack said he sees the priorities as “improving the delivery of the educational program,” straightening out the system’s finances, and enhancing the teacher selection process.
“We have some wonderful, dedicated teachers, and then there are some who shouldn’t be in the classroom,” Womack said. “We’ve got to weed out those who just show up.”
Womack said he asked former interim Superintendent Ramona Tyson to develop a “principal’s academy” similar to a training ground for principals in Gwinnett County.
In 2012, the school system established a leadership academy that helps administrators move to the next level. Twenty-nine people have applied for the first round of courses.
CrossRoadsNews reported on July 7 that 1,194 DeKalb high school seniors – or one in five – failed to graduate last spring.
In response, candidates for District 4 focused on the ills of social promotion.
McMahan said the school system does not have a promotion/retention policy.
“Let’s create a retention policy,” he said. “If you don’t pass, you don’t go.”
When told many were shocked by the newspaper’s findings, Kinney said, “My shocking is that it was only one in five. I expected it to be higher.”
He said he’d like to know how many of those students were athletes and said the school system is “notorious” for not recognizing learning disabilities.
“That costs money,” Kinney said.
Womack said the effort to prevent the failed senior scenario needs to start in pre-k and with good principals who are dedicated to having the best teachers possible.
“If a kid can’t read and is socially promoted, that child is doomed to failure,” Womack said. “We have got to grab that child and ensure the child does not become a statistic.”
Gilbert said the school system needs better qualified teachers.
“We need to start evaluating some of the teachers and give some of the money back,” he said, referring to the furlough days imposed on DeKalb teachers over the past few years.
July 31 ballot questions
Three of the candidates said they will vote against a cell tower proposal on the ballot.
Gilbert said school properties are only for public use. Kinney said he doesn’t believe cell towers pose a health hazard but he doesn’t want to see schools become subject to for-profit interests. McMahan said the ballot question doesn’t allow for local control.
Voters are being asked in a non-binding advisory referendum whether the school system should be allowed to place or operate telecommunication towers on school property.
State legislators have been seeking ways to prevent the location of more cell towers on DeKalb Schools property after a July 12, 2011, vote by the DeKalb School Board to allow T-Mobile to locate 150-foot-high towers on nine school properties for up to 30 years. Most of those schools are in South DeKalb.
“Cell towers are needed, but it comes down to local control,” McMahan said. “So if a community wants it, and it goes through the proper channels, I’m OK. … I think what the school system did was completely inappropriate and fractured the trust of the citizens in those communities.”
Womack, who voted in favor of the towers, said he voted not to put them at schools that had expressed opposition.
He said he has not decided how he will vote on the July 31 question but did say he doesn’t see them as threats to health.
“You get more radiation from your handheld cell phone and microwave and walk-around phone at home than from cell towers,” Womack said.
Three candidates said they will vote against the ballot’s T-SPLOST referendum.
T-SPLOST would levy a 1-cent sales tax for transportation improvements over 10 years.
Kinney said he’s voting “no.”
“We’ve got a [transportation] system that requires cars. … MARTA is so undersized it’s just about useless,” Kinney said. “I will not be voting for T-SPLOST because there’s nothing they have said that is going to resolve transportation issues.”
Gilbert said T-SPLOST will fail.
“You gotta be crazy to vote for that thing,” Gilbert said. “Most of the money is going to the city of Atlanta.”
McMahan also is voting against T-SPLOST.
Using Ga. 400 as an example, he said he doesn’t trust government to end the tax from T-SPLOST when the projects are paid off.
“Until there’s some accountability from our state government, I’m not jumping into [T-SPLOST],” he said.
“The revenue from the [Ga. 400] toll was supposed to pay off the bonds so that, eventually, the toll would go away,” McMahan said. “When they paid off the bonds, they changed the law, and now this is a money-making machine.”
Womack said he is undecided.
He said he spent many years riding trains in Europe and in New York, where he worked as a special agent in the Organized Crime Task Force of the U.S. Treasury Department.
“If they had put a train starting at Blue Ridge, Dalton and Macon to Atlanta and I-20 East and West, then I would have jumped at [T-SPLOST],” Womack said.
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Current T-SPLOST is not worthy of our support
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