Note: This story is the third in a series featuring the two candidates running for the office of St. Clair County Schools superintendent. Both Gregg Cobb and Mike Howard are running as Republicans as current Superintendent Jenny Seals is not seeking re-election. There is no Democratic opposition.
ODENVILLE – Greg Cobb and Mike Howard have entered the superintendent’s race for St. Clair County Schools. Cobb is the system’s federal programs coordinator, and Howard is the principal of St. Clair County High. Recently, they answered questions at a Meet the Candidates at Legacy Springs event.
How important is raising property taxes to the financial health of the system?
Cobb: The truth is, we have outgrown our tax structure. We have 9,200 students right now, and the last time we had a tax increase for education was back in the 1960s. I highly respect the vote of the people. But we are at a place where we are trying to trim where we can trim. I watch the maintenance crew patch roofs. We are doing the bare minimum we can possibly do. Our pay scales are at the bottom in the state of Alabama. Our teachers are here because they love teaching in St. Clair County and have a vested interest here. We’re a great secret. We treat our people well. We tried to hire someone last year but didn’t because this person would lose time with their family and it would mean a $12,000 pay cut to come teach in our school system. That’s what we are up against.
Howard: Whenever you say the word tax, everyone starts getting nervous. There is no doubt in my mind that we need more in our schools. There is no doubt we need to provide more for our students. We have to research and find what the best option for our county is moving forward. Is it a district tax where each district gets to keep the money they raised? Is it a consumption tax where you tax 5 cents to every soda? That way you can hit visitors to our county. I can’t answer that because it takes research. We must sit down with our community leaders and talk to them about what are the best ways to raise money for our schools. To put everything into one tax is going to be kind of hard to do. People voted recently, and they voted down a tax hike for education. We have to educate the community. We have to be transparent to show the community where we are and be transparent to gain the input of the community to show them where we can go. We have to show them how overcrowded some of the classrooms are and why we need brick and mortar structures. We have to show them that kids are walking in the rain to get to the lunchroom because they do not have a lunchroom in their school. We have to show them there are some facilities across the county that are falling apart.
What are the school system’s financial issues? With the recent property tax measure voted down, what are your plans to either reduce expenditures or increase revenue to manage these?
Howard: All money has to benefit our students. The first question I ask every day is if this money we are spending is benefitting our students? Every educational decision I make in school, regardless of if it is tough or easy, the bottom line has to be if it is beneficial. If the answer is yes, then we have to do it. There is always going to be people not happy with the decision you make, but you have to stick with it and go with it. We do not know what the future holds with any type of increase in taxes. Due to that, we have to tighten our bootstraps and be good stewards of the money we do have. We need a comprehensive plan to see how we are going to spend the funds to put more back into the classroom. Teachers tell me they need more supplies and books for their students. These things are hot topics that need addressing now. We are allocated so much money per student from the State Department (of Education). We have to find ways to decrease that deficiency between what they provide for us and what we truly need. We have to look at all our options. We need to look at donations, we have to apply for grants, fundraising efforts and look at taxes as a possibility. We are all in this together.
Cobb: We must gain the trust of the people. As a person who has been in this school system for a long time, I want to stand for the people in each community and say this is a problem. I’m seeing people who are working day and night, taking work home. Whether they be principals of a school or Central Office people. Everybody has a different work ethic. I want you to know that I am your grant writer and I have had successful grants written. I know where the funding is and I go after that funding. Since I have been federal programs coordinator, I’ve raised the funding a lot for our schools. I understand we have to go after that revenue, but the first step is gaining the trust of the people.
There is a public perception that an information disconnect exists between the Central Office and county residents. What are your thoughts on this relationship? If you feel it needs to be improved, please explain your plan to improve it.
Cobb: I definitely feel like it needs to improve. I’m one of the ones up there. I give 180 percent to my work every day. There are days I work straight through lunch because I am so busy. To go out into the community and hear things about the Central Office, it really hurts, especially to those of us who work hard. The thing I learned several years ago is the more you are out in the schools and the more helpful you are to those schools, the better off we all are. My plan is to take the people at the Central Office and look at all the positions and just see how many positions we actually need for a school system with 9,300 students. That is one-third of the student population at the University of Alabama. We are the largest employer in St. Clair County. So what do we need to run the school system? We still have to meet compliance. We still have to make sure we are doing everything that we need to do to be the best we can be but still not to break federal, state and local laws. So, what would I do? I would have the Central Office people out in the schools helping principals who are facing issues.
Howard: First of all, we can always improve our communication. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, there’s always disconnect there if you don’t personally work on it every day. When I first came to St. Clair County High School, I told the teachers that we would have an open communication dialogue with our parents. Every grade that dropped below a C, we’re calling the parents to let them know ahead of time before report cards come out. The parents know we keep their children in the forefront. We have to make sure the Central Office and the community have a working relationship. We have to work together to make sure we are meeting those needs. We need panel discussions where community leaders and teachers meet in each district with the superintendent to talk about the needs of their community. What one community needs can be totally different than what a community on the opposite side of the county may need. We have to make sure each community has a voice. Right now, there are some communities that feel they do not have a voice at all. I think we need to be more transparent in how we conduct business. Our technology team could record board meetings and project on Facebook Live so everyone could see board meetings that couldn’t be there.
Reach Gary Hanner at firstname.lastname@example.org.