Decatur School Board Candidate Garrett Goebel Says Enrollment, Funding, Top School Issues

"I don't think the question is whether or not we will reopen Westchester, but rather when and how," Garrett Goebel.

Garrett Goebel thinks rising enrollment and declining funding are major issues facing the board, would work to reduce the system's costs for technology, transportation, maintenance and operations, and would vote to raise school taxes if he thought "it is in the best interests of our students and the community."

He faces Peg Bumgardner in the Nov. 8 election. Her answers to questions can also be found in Patch.

Goebel, who ran unsuccessfully for school board two years ago, is a Software Developer in Research and Development for ScriptProUSA. He has a BA from James Madison College of Michigan State University, where he majored in International Relations with an additional major in German.

Read Goebel's answers to questions posed by Patch:

I am a software developer with results-oriented experience and sensibilities, including:

  • Creating and enhancing systems that reflect the perspectives of all stakeholders;
  • Making processes, procedures and professional staff more efficient;
  • Delivering the results our customers want on time and on schedule.

Children in the system at kindergarten, third, fifth and ninth grades.

Volunteer and community positions:

  • Vice-Chair, 4/5 Academy School Leadership Team
  • Quantitative Analysis Lead, Decatur High School Vision Committee
  • Member, Reconfiguration Committee
  • Member, Central Office Technology Committee
  • Reviewer, Charter System Petition
  • PTA, PTO Volunteer and Web Master
  • Leader, Clairemont Chess Club Team
  • Leader, Renfroe STEMCELL Robotics Club
  • Team Leader, fourth Grade First Lego League Team
  • Class Leader, Math Superstars
  • Class Leader, Science Explorers Club
  • Tutor, Reading and Math
  • Coach, Decatur Recreation Soccer and T-Ball 

I am active, available and accessible to parents, students, teachers, and the community at all levels of the school system. Communities change over time. My leadership will reflect the community as it is and as it changes.

1.   What do you think are the biggest issues or obstacles that the Decatur School System faces in the next four years, and how do you think the school system should handle these?

The biggest issues are rising enrollments and declining per-student funding. We are spending one thousand dollars less per student than we were only a few years ago. If enrollments continue to rise, state funding declines, and property values stay flat, we will likely see per-student funding drop by at least another thousand dollars. 

Cost containment and long-term capacity planning are pressing issues. I will work to keep class sizes small and teacher compensation competitive, while minimizing the overall burden on taxpayers.

We can address these issues best by focusing on the school system’s decision-making process, communication, and community engagement. The process needs to be open and transparent. It is critical that teachers, students, and community volunteers are involved before budgets are drawn up and throughout the process. They have essential insights into where dollars are well spent and where they are not. We need to have meaningful conversations on difficult subjects, and reach consensus through compromise.

2.   The school system is growing and the system appears ready to reopen Westchester, closed by a board that thought enrollment was declining and in an extremely controversial decision. How could the system’s projections  have been so wrong and what do you propose to do as a board member to prevent such mistakes?  Do you support reopening Westchester as an elementary school?

We could improve projections by using a door-to-door survey designed by community research experts and carried out by high school students as a service project.

History shows a cycle of rising and declining enrollments. Our enrollment projections only tell us what will happen if the trend of the last few years continues. Trends change. We need to improve our methods and data collection so that we can better identify the peaks and valleys.

Based on recent census data, there is reason to believe that enrollments will continue to rise. The central office is exploring when and how to bring Westchester back into service as a school. It is important that we do so in a manner which is fiscally responsible. 

We also need to acknowledge the stress that opening and closing schools places on students, parents, teachers, and the community. We need a long-term vision which is operationally efficient during periods of rising and declining enrollments. Based on current trends and the resources we have available, I don't think the question is whether or not we will reopen Westchester, but rather when and how.

3.   If Westchester is converted back into a school, administrative offices must relocate. Would you support a proposal to construct new offices, or do you think there are less expensive options available, such as leasing vacant office space in Decatur?

We need to explore the options and carefully consider the trade-offs. The best option will be the one which has the lowest overall cost and least impact on instruction. Several factors immediately come to mind.

Buying or building space would be capital expenditures, so they could be paid with revenues of the SPLOST sales tax. Leasing space could not. The cost of leasing space would have to be paid from the General Fund, which pays for teacher salaries. (Roughly speaking, the annual cost of leasing would be equivalent to the annual salaries and benefits of three teachers.)

The costs of leasing space will likely go up over time, but fixed-rate financing could be arranged to buy property and pay for construction. 

Of course, we can't mortgage the future by financing more capital construction projects than we can afford. If SPLOST (the renewal of the one-cent sales tax for schools) does not pass, then the costs of servicing the debt for the new Fifth Avenue Academy and other renovations will have to come out of the General Fund. 

4.   Recently, the school board passed a new nepotism policy that will allow the school system, under certain conditions, to hire immediate family members of the superintendent and certain administrators. Many board members have relatives working at the school system. What do you think is an appropriate nepotism policy in the Decatur School System? Do you have any immediate family members who work for the Decatur School System or other local school systems?

There is an old saying in politics that perception is reality. The reality of whether job candidates are suitable for hire obviously can be overshadowed by the appearance of family members receiving special treatment. As long as the hiring process is open, transparent, and accountable, then we will be on a strong footing both in real terms and in the court of public opinion.

I do not have any family members who work for the City Schools of Decatur or any other local school system. 

5.   Where do you think Decatur’s schools need improvement? How would you push that improvement as a board member?

We can improve:

  • early identification of individual students’ needs, to close educational gaps and improve outcomes for all;
  • communication; and
  • community engagement.

Early identification of needs gives students the greatest chance to reach their full potential. We have made progress, but we need to continue to close the gaps and increase successful outcomes for all students. I will set a priority on building professional capacity to recognize and refer children in need.

Communication and community engagement go hand in hand. We need to do a better job of encouraging, listening to, and sharing our story with parents, teachers, and the community. We need to develop policies to promote open, responsible communications, and increase access to information via technology and social media.

6.   The superintendent  has cited difficulties with the system’s school bus transportation, and members of the community have criticized the bus system. What do you think the issues are and how would you propose solving them?

The buses need to run efficiently and on time. Changes in bus schedules (and reasons for the changes) need to be communicated in language everybody can understand. Communication should be proactive. We need to be open, transparent, and accountable when identifying and resolving issues.

Our superintendent, Dr. Edwards, has written an open letter regarding bus transportation. This letter explains many of the current issues, as well as the steps being taken to improve the quality of our busing services.

Dr. Edwards has formed a transportation committee composed of parents, staff, and community members. The committee has an ambitious schedule for gathering and analyzing data, collecting input from experts, and making recommendations to improve our transportation services.

I look forward to hearing the committee’s recommendations.

As a board member, I would encourage the development of performance standards to promote accountability and efficiency in our transportation services.

7.   Both of you have served on School Leadership Teams. Do you think these bodies are having an impact in the school system and why?

School Leadership Teams (SLTs) are the governing bodies that the State of Georgia required us to adopt when our Charter System Petition was approved. SLTs are composed of parents, teachers, administrators, and community members.

School Leadership Teams hold much promise as a tool to increase community involvement and engagement in our schools. They are having a positive impact. 

It is important that SLTs be empowered to pursue meaningful work in keeping with the intent of the Charter System statute. It is important that we find the right balance in decision-making authority between the central office and individual schools, and in distinguishing policy-making from operational decisions.  

8.   The Decatur School System levies the state’s highest property tax millage. The economy is struggling and the state is signaling more cuts to education. Do you think the Decatur School System has been a responsible steward of public money?  In which areas do you think the system can best afford to cut back spending?

We receive a good return on our investment in the school system. In Decatur, an owner of a $400K home pays around $500 more per year in school property taxes than an owner in Dekalb County. Our school system is a valuable community asset, and I believe it has helped to keep Decatur’s property values relatively stable during the economic downturn. During the downturn, Dekalb County homeowners have experienced significant declines in property values.

I will work to contain or reduce our school system’s costs for technology, transportation, maintenance and operations. Along the way, I will keep several points in mind. First, it is important that we avoid being penny-wise and pound-foolish. Second, spending money sometimes creates new efficiencies and new sources of revenues. Third, by partnering where we can with the City of Decatur’s services, we can do more for less.

It is important to recognize that more than 80% of our budget relates to personnel. Personnel costs and healthcare costs, in particular, tend to grow faster than inflation. In order to attract and retain quality teachers and staff, we need to provide competitive compensation. We need to look very carefully at the details, and be prepared to have hard conversations and make difficult choices.

9.   Do you endorse the SPLOST and why?

SPLOST is the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. SPLOST provides revenue through a one-cent sales tax, which can be used by school systems only for purchasing or improving property (capital expenditures). Our school system has used SPLOST funds to renovate and build facilities to meet changing needs.

We always must ensure we use SPLOST funds wisely with a long-term vision. 

Our budget-planning process should not assume that voters will renew SPLOST forever. We should plan and budget for the possibility that SPLOST may not be renewed, so we can minimize the impact on the General Fund and instruction.

We need SPLOSTto be renewed. We need it because we have financial obligations which depend upon it, including paying for construction of the Fifth Avenue Academy. Losing SPLOST would cut more than $2,000,000 in annual revenue from our school system’s budget.

10.   Under what circumstances would you vote to increase school property taxes?

We receive a good return on our investment in the school system. The short answer to the question is this: when it is in the best interests of our students and the community.

I can illustrate this with a real-world example. If SPLOST (the one-cent sales tax renewal) does not pass, our school system will lose roughly $2,000,000 in annual revenue. We are relying on a large portion of those revenues to pay debts incurred to construct the Fifth Avenue Academy and other recent renovations. Losing SPLOST would create tremendous pressure to cut expenses, increase revenues, or both.

There would be no easy options. Cutting expenses would be difficult, based on our needs for small class sizes and competitive teacher compensation. Raising revenue through millage increases also would be difficult, based on our need to be mindful of residents living on fixed and/or limited incomes

11. Why are you running for the Decatur School Board? What would make you a good school board member?

I am running for the board because I want to ensure that our children have every opportunity to succeed in a strong education system. I will do this by bringing to the table all my personal and professional skills and experiences, as well as the community’s perspectives and input.

On a personal level, I am active, available and accessible to parents, students, teachers, and the community at large. I am a work-at-home father with four children attending Kindergarten, 3rd, 5th and 9th grade. I am in the halls and classrooms of schools almost every day, where I tutor, volunteer, and lead clubs and activities. I also have worked for the schools and our system, more broadly, by serving on school governing bodies and several system-level committees.

On a professional level, I am a software developer with results-oriented experience and sensibilities, including

  • Creating and enhancing systems that reflect the perspectives of all stakeholders;
  • Making processes, procedures and professional staff more efficient; and
  • Delivering the results our customers want on time and on schedule.

As a board member, I will provide a new independent voice. I will be accessible and responsive. I will ask informed questions. And I will work to ensure that the actions we take are in line with our community's values.

Lesly Fredman October 27, 2011 at 04:13 PM
I would appreciate a yes or no answer to the question of raising taxes by Mr. Goebel. Peg Bumgardner was willing to answer that question, "...the board might need to increase taxes to continue supporting a system that focuses on what is in the best interest of all students." The issue is a tough one, but Ms. Bumgardner doesn't hesitate to answer...Mr. Goebel speaks only of the difficulty of the situation without meeting the challenge of a forthright answer.
Garrett Goebel October 27, 2011 at 06:13 PM
Lesly, with respect, the question was "under what circumstances". My answer is clear: when it is in the best interests of our students and the community. The example I give is if SPLOST is not renewed. The difference between "might need to" and my answer, is that I go on to illustrate the reasons why we might need to raise taxes and the considerations that I will be balancing. I would be happy to meet with you over coffee to discuss this topic at length and to your satisfaction. You can contact me at garrett dot goebel at gmail dot com.
Pat October 27, 2011 at 08:46 PM
And you find Peg's answer to be, yes or no?


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