Sumter Schools chief updates board

Published 11:00 am Wednesday, October 18, 2017

By Beth Alston

AMERICUS — At the September work session of the Sumter County Board of Education, Superintendent Torrance Choates, Ed.D., gave his annual presentation to the board. This is Choates’ second year at Sumter County Schools’ superintendent.
In his report, the superintendent checked off some of the accomplishments of the past 11 months, 2016-2017.
He listed better communications between his office and the board members; a revision to the current facility use policy to require people who wish the rent the facilities to purchase liability insurance; strengthening the cell phone use policy and dress code policy for students; and implementation of a three-stage interview process for employment candidates.
In the area of administration, Choates said two principals and four assistant principals had been replaced. There are now male/female administrative teams at all the schools.
Choates reported several highlights for students. He initiated awards ceremonies four times per year. In the past Award Ceremonies were held only once or twice per year. He said he felt it was just that important to recognize students’ success that it needed to be held every nine weeks. He implemented the Alternative Behavior Education System (a.b.e.) to promote a decline in discipline issues. He initiated a Superintendent’s Blitz, in which he visits each classroom and promotes positive attitudes while challenging student academically. He also formed a Student Leadership Team.
Students cannot be expected to be successful in school without the support of their parents. In this area, Choates implemented a Parental Contact Log and requires teachers to make 30 contacts with students’ parents each month. A parent contact can be in the form of a conference, phone call, text, or an email. What constitutes a parent contact is that there has to be a response back from the parent. You cannot leave a message and then say, “I left a message.” He also has enforced a protocol/chain of command procedure for parental complaints. He is in the process of forming a Parental Advisory Board.
One of the facets the superintendent has always stressed is being a good steward of the taxpayers’ dollars. In this area, Choates highlighted savings for the school district during his first 11 months on the job. He saved $100,000 by renegotiating the Ombudsman Program from $60,000 in 2017, to $40,000 in 2018. He said the change was made after he determined that “discipline was so bad” under the former program.
He deleted 90 percent of out-of-state professional development activities, after finding that some teachers and/or administrators were traveling out of state for training and professional development.
He also eliminated leasing of storage containers. Previously, the school system leased two such containers for $3,648 per year. Choates stopped that practice, and purchased two containers for $5,900.
He also eliminated a “rarely used” mobile unit at Sumter County Intermediate School which was being rented at a cost of $349 per month for five years ($20,940).
By eliminating excess cell phones for staff and other personnel, he reduced the cell phone bill from $2,005 per month to $1,437.  Some of the phones being used and paid for by the system were issued to school resource officers, assistant principals, and other personnel. The Sheriff’s Office already issued cell phones to the school resource officers and all other officers for that matter.
He also eliminated excess positions and maximized federal programs dollars, saving the system an additional projected $1.6 million by using the class size reduction model throughout the entire system. He noted that maximizing federal program dollars to save the system and taxpayer dollars has never been done on this magnitude.
Another area of focus for Choates during his first year as superintendent here, was to create a way to save in personnel costs by carefully examining Training & Experience (T&E).  Simply put, hiring the best qualified applicant that you can possibly acquire but keeping in mind it can prove very beneficial to get fresh new ideas from new teachers as well.
At Sumter County Primary School, he did not replace four empty paraprofessional slots for the 2017-18 school year. There are is still one vacancy at the school that needs to be filled which is a first-grade teacher, a Pre-K teacher.
At Sumter County Elementary School, he recommended not replacing three teachers due to a decline in enrollment.
At Sumter County Intermediate School, he recommended not replacing a reading teacher and a math lab teacher, due to a decline in enrollment. One special education teacher is being paid through a third-party contract.
At Americus-Sumter Ninth Grade Academy, a math teacher will not be replaced. And at the Sumter County Board Office, a public relations director has been reassigned and the director of technology will be paid locally.
These changes represent projected savings to the system of $526,272.
Choates, after careful review, also found a way to save in Title I, for a total of $1,483.543.05, and in Title II, a savings of $120,494.16.
All these savings total over $2.2 million.
While the system is $300,000 under budget for transportation, Choates recommended “putting this in a ‘lockbox’ and operate like we don’t have it, so we can have $15 million in reserve.”
Board member Rick Barnes, chairman of the board’s personnel committee, commented during Choates’ presentation that if the system has too much of a reserve, “at some point, the state says they won’t give any more funding.” Board member Alice Green concurred, saying this is true, especially in Title I and Title II. Choates clarified that Title I funds are earmarked only for Title I. Alice Green said she had “heard somewhere along the lines that it can be used differently.”
Another way to cut costs is energy. After conducting an energy audit, Choates emphasized ways to conserve energy, thereby lowering the system’s power usage. He said he rode around at night and found lights left on in one of the schools. He along with Billy Thompkins addressed this problem very quickly with the administrator and custodians during summer clean-up.

He is recommending LED lighting district-wide which will cut the power bill in half, from approximately $70,000 to approximately $35,000. He pointed out that regular florescent lights cause air conditioners to run harder due to them putting out so much heat. He also pointed out that additional savings will come with reducing maintenance as ballasts have to be replaced fairly often but with LED lighting. one will never have to replace ballasts.

Barnes asked Choates to go back to the discussion of teachers and classrooms.
“In the primary and elementary schools where you don’t replace positions, these are areas we’re to put an emphasis on,” he said. “Paraprofessionals are a luxury,” Choates said.
“I understand that,” Barnes said, “but back when we were balancing the budget, by cutting payroll, the reserve is like icing on the cake. I would rather have teachers in the classrooms than $15 million in reserve. I’m in it to win it. I want a chest full of well-educated children, not a chest full of money.” Alice Green concurred.
“The savings on Title I and Title II,” Barnes commented, “are unbelievably awesome if it’s true. I’m happy you (Choates) you did this but I want some of my [personnel] stuff.”
Choates said he came to the system in October 2016, after Title I funds had already been allocated. He said, “it’s been tough to move here and learn a new board.” He added that he’s working with Mr. Knighton (Walter Knighton, associate superintendent for curriculum) to bring up test scores.
Choates closed the presentation by saying that, “nothing will ever take the place of a good, strong principal at each school.” He believes that a good, strong principal will push teachers, parents, students, and community to higher levels of academic achievement.
“That’s what will make a huge difference,” he concluded.