CCSD Police Chief Swearing In

Buster Cushing, left, is sworn in by Cherokee County State Court Judge A. Dee Morris to serve as CCSD’s new School Police Chief, as his daughter, Preslie; wife, Christy; and son, Sadler, look on.

The Cherokee County School Board has unanimously approved its budget for next school year and celebrated the swearing-in of a new school police chief.

The budget, approved at last Thursday’s board meeting, includes a pay raise for teachers and other staff and reductions in classroom size with no change in the millage rate.

Three public hearings were held on the budget and millage rate, with no speakers signing up.

Local property tax revenue is projected to increase 5.3%, which allows the district to increase investments in employees without increasing taxes.

The $481 million general fund operating budget includes raises for certified and classified employees and higher salaries for starting teachers and some other positions. Part of the state’s budget this year includes a $3,000 raise for teachers, and the school district is using local funds to extend that increase to all certified employees. Classified employees will receive a 2% raise. CCSD’s starting teacher salary is increasing by $3,000, to $46,000, and salaries for specific positions, including police officers, are rising. Also included are longevity step increases for all eligible employees. The district reports 67% of spending is in the classroom, 27% is in student support, such as counselors and nurses, and 6% is in other operating costs.

A new initiative in the proposed budget is the creation of two new mental health counselor positions, who will work districtwide with students, specifically focusing on those in crisis.

The new counselors were among recommendations of the superintendent’s first ad hoc committee studying Social and Emotional Learning, a national movement in education to ensure the health and well-being of students and school employees.

CCSD also plans to reduce interest payments and improve its credit rating by shifting of a half a mill from operations to debt service, which is projected to lower the district’s debt by $20 million over the five year term of the Education Special Local Option Sales Tax.

Superintendent Brian Hightower reviewed the committee’s report with the school board during the meeting. The report is available on the school district’s website.

Hightower praised the committee, which was made up of teachers, administrators and school counselors, nurses and psychologists, for its dedication, and he committed to phasing in its recommendations, with work already underway on first implementation steps. The recommendations have both specific and broad goals ranging from identifying a staff person to lead these initiatives to redefining counselor responsibilities to allow more focus on SEL counseling.

While CCSD wants every student to excel academically at the highest level possible, the superintendent said it’s clear that stress related to school can have detrimental effects on students’ health and well-being.

“We want them to be challenged, but we also want them to be healthy,” he said, noting the alarming nationwide trends in rising levels of student anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, which are triggered by numerous factors in addition to school. “We know this isn’t just on us, but we just can’t put our heads in the sand. We need to work together as a District and a School Board to take good care of our kids.”

Hightower also announced CCSD’s first educator summit in 25 years: “CCSD Ed Talks” will be an annual professional development event held one morning during July pre-planning for all certified staff. This year’s session will feature nationally renowned educator, author and speaker Weston Kieschnick. In addition hearing the “Bold School” author, Hightower will speak about CCSD’s expanded efforts to focus on SEL.

Thursday’s meeting kicked off with a special ceremony to swear in the new chief for CCSD’s School Police Department: Buster Cushing, who recently retired as a major with the Cherokee Sheriff’s Office and just returned from the FBI National Academy program for law enforcement leaders.

His longtime friend, Cherokee County State Court Judge A. Dee Morris, conducted the ceremony, which was attended by Chief Cushing’s family and a crowd of local law enforcement leaders including Sheriff Frank Reynolds and Chief Deputy Chief Ken Ball, as well as immediate past Sheriff Roger Garrison.

“You’re excited we’re getting one of your best, and we’re excited we’re getting one of your best,” Hightower told the audience, which rose to give Chief Cushing a standing ovation. “We think a lot of Buster. It’s a very forward moment for us as a school district and school police department.”

The next school board meeting is 7 p.m. July 18 in auditorium at the Dr. Frank R. Petruzielo Educational Services Facility, 1205 Bluffs Parkway in Canton.

Shannon is a reporter covering education, city governments, crime, features, religion and other local news. She is a graduate of Young Harris College and currently lives in unincorporated Woodstock.

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