GNETS funding a top legislative priority for Cobb County School District

The logo on front of a Cobb County School District facilityCobb County School District sign (photo by Larry Felton Johnson)

By Rebecca Gaunt

Cobb County School District’s top legislative priority for the 2023 session is to preserve the current funding mechanism for the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Supports (GNETS) program.

GNETS is a statewide program that serves students with severe social, emotional, and behavioral problems who have difficulty in traditional classroom settings. The GNETS program has 24 sites in Georgia.

H.A.V.E.N. Academy in Mableton is the site that serves Cobb County, Douglas County and Marietta City. At Thursday’s work session, Gretchen Walton, the compliance and legislative affairs officer for the district, told the board that H.A.V.E.N. is at risk for a 70% reduction in funding.

“There is a discussion, it happened last year too, and we were able to stop it three days before the budget went through,” Walton said. “But the appropriations committee has talked about changing the funding for our GNETS program from a grant base to an FTE base.”

Superintendent Chris Ragsdale emphasized that the matter is “quite urgent.”

“With that level of funding, that’s obviously not just impacting us. It’s impacting Douglas County and Marietta City at the same time. I’ve already asked Gretchen to engage with the lawmakers to make sure a 100% level of understanding is achieved with legislators so they know what funding they are cutting, and what the impact will be to not only students, but teachers, and also surrounding districts,” he said.

The second priority is the ongoing battle against the diversion of public school funding via school vouchers. Vouchers would allow the funds intended for public schools to follow students to private education settings.

Additional items on the list:

  • Applying charter waivers to strategic waiver systems such as CCSD. Charter systems automatically get to waive everything that is legally allowed to be waived under Title 20, according to Walton. Strategic waiver systems have to go back to the state every time they make a waiver. The waivers provide flexibility in following state laws and regulations, such as maximum class size, in exchange for meeting annual performance targets.
  • Establishing opportunities for additional pathways to graduation. For example, options for students who are 17 and older, but still listed as freshman due to the number of credits earned.
  • Incentivizing higher education for teachers. According to Walton, the HOPE scholarship can be applied to some graduate degrees in education, but not all. The district wishes for eligibility to be expanded.
  • Returning to quarterly financial reports, rather than the monthly reports required by Senate Bill 68, which went into effect last year.
  • Requesting the legislature streamline the varying required response times from staff in multiple education bills passed last session.
  • Sustaining the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) as currently structured.

“[TRS is] one of our incentives, both for hiring and for retention,” Walton said.

The list of priorities passed 5-2, with board members Dr. Jaha Howard and Charisse Davis in opposition over issues they said should also be included.

Davis asked why requesting full QBE funding was not on the list, and said Georgia was one of only eight states without a piece in the formula to address student poverty. Citing the interest of some senators in addressing that missing piece, she called it an opportunity to lead.

Ragsdale said QBE was included in the past, but since it’s currently fully funded, the focus this year is on maintaining GNETS funding.

Howard requested funding for dyslexia screening and teacher training be added as a priority.

Chief Academic Officer Catherine Mallanda told the board that the state has already provided $15 million toward dyslexia screening.

“It’s very expensive to do what we’re talking about doing,” Howard said, noting that Cobb only receives a portion of that money.

Ragsdale confirmed that the district received $1.427 million.

“We got a pretty good chunk of the $15 million, but at the same time, that’s not to say that’s a lesser priority,” Ragsdale said. “It’s an unfunded mandate for us.There are a lot of examples that we can point to about what’s not on the list. That doesn’t mean that it won’t be contained in conversations and discussions during the session.”

Rebecca Gaunt earned a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in education from Oglethorpe University. After teaching elementary school for several years, she returned to writing. She lives in Marietta with her husband, son, two cats, and a dog. In her spare time, she loves to read, binge Netflix and travel.