The Cherokee County Board of Education has approved a $567 million budget for the upcoming fiscal year, and set a referendum to ask voters to renew the five-year education sales tax in November’s election.

The budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 adds up to 125 new teachers to support “supplemental learning opportunities” and 30 more to address growth in certain areas like career pathways, two school nurses, two school psychologists and one social worker, according to the school district. It also adds one position for the federal Title I program. The budget invests $7.9 million in longevity step increases and a 1% cost of living raise for eligible employees.

The budget, up from this year’s $520 million budget, calls for a millage rate of 19.45 mills. Although the rate is not changing, it represents a 5.28% tax increase due to rising property values.

Social and emotional learning

The budget’s unanimous approval from the school board Thursday came after dozens of residents showed up to oppose funding for the district’s social and emotional learning programming.

SEL in Cherokee public schools was launched as a mental health program two years ago for students and staff, according to CCSD officials. SEL curriculum focuses on five core areas: self awareness, social awareness, responsible decision making, self management and relationship skills.

Parts of Thursday’s meeting saw themes from last month’s school board meeting, where parents and residents largely condemned “critical race theory,” linking it to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and SEL. A little over 160 people showed up to Thursday’s meeting, school police said.

Thursday’s meeting was limited to 210 seats — for security purposes, school district spokesperson Barbara Jacoby told the Tribune: last month there weren’t aisles to clearly see audience members. A small section of parking was blocked off, designated for an expected peaceful assembly, Jacoby said, but there wasn’t a gathering there. Like last month, the meeting saw increased school police presence and checkpoints at the door.

Some opposed to SEL pointed to a specific vendor: 7 Mindsets, a Roswell-based consultant the district has used. The company covers topics including “implicit bias, the power of privilege, cultural competence, microaggressions and more,” Genia Roberson said.

Johnny Knocke, a Sequoyah High School graduate, said SEL was “caught to facilitate a liberal agenda in schools.”

“Remove the word ‘equity’ from all CCSD guidelines and programs,” he said to applause from audience members. “Terminate the contract with 7 Mindsets immediately. If continuing any form of SEL, make it an elective and allow students and parents to decide if they want to take it. Publish all SEL curriculum for full transparency. Alternatively, if the board decides they know best on SEL and continues down the DEI, woke-aligned path, make school choice an option and let the county tax dollars follow students.”

Superintendent Brian Hightower later said the district will not use 7 Mindsets next year, but its own curriculum.

Many of the SEL opponents also denounced quarantines for unvaccinated students without COVID-19 symptoms, what they called “healthy quarantines.” Two parents referred to the quarantines, which come from state COVID-19 guidelines, “crimes against humanity,” saying they increase anxiety, depression, and suicide risk.

Some parents and residents, and a high school student, showed support for the SEL initiative.

“Good teachers do SEL every day,” said Karen Holly, a former principal at Freedom Middle School. “When I was principal, I saw a disdain and hate for each other (among students), and I saw teachers having trouble. We found a program and brought it in...the bullying went down by just everybody deciding to be kind to each other. I hope SEL does not go away.”

SEL as the district defines it, Jacoby told the Tribune, consists of its entire support services department: every school psychologist, school nurse, social worker, and administrators tasked with promoting the emotional wellbeing of students and staff.

An administrator, Cecelia Lewis, would have started this summer in a new position to focus on diversity and inclusion, but stepped down last month. Her salary, $115,000, will remain allocated in support services, and could be used to hire a fifth social worker, Jacoby said.

School surveys

A rising eighth grader said an SEL survey asks students personal questions that are supposed to be anonymous, but are linked to an identification number.

“In this survey there were questions such as, if your sibling came out as LGBTQ, how would your parents react? Or, how many times have you attempted suicide in the past 12 months?” Lily Bartkow said.

Questions about topics like drugs and suicide are not on a CCSD SEL vendor Panorama survey, but on a state-required Georgia Health Survey, Hightower later said. According to the school district, the SEL survey is used to collect school-level data, not information about individual students, and families can opt out of any surveys.

“Specifically the Panorama survey, and we’ll put these under a microscope, they ask more general questions about self-management, relationships, et cetera,” Hightower said.

Ed-SPLOST referendum, Free Home purchase

Also at the meeting, school board members agreed to call for a referendum to ask voters to renew the Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax in the Nov. 2 election. The current Ed-SPLOST expires at the end of next year. If voters renew it, the one percent sales tax will be extended another five years.

A list of potential projects for the next Ed-SPLOST is expected to be finalized later this summer or early in the fall, Jacoby said.

The school board also voted to purchase land for a new Free Home Elementary School for $1.6 million. The site is near the current Free Home Elementary, at the corner of Highway 20 and Highway 372 near Ball Ground.

Free Home is the smallest school in the district. In March, there were just 290 students enrolled there, according to the Georgia Department of Education. Part of the current school property is slated to be part of an expanded Highway 20 planned by the Georgia Department of Transportation.

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Shannon Ballew is the managing editor at the Cherokee Tribune and the Cherokee Ledger-News. She is a graduate of Young Harris College and lives in unincorporated Woodstock.

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