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Forsyth County Republican organizations, state legislators hold town hall to discuss K-12 legislation
Town hall
From the left, state Rep. Sheri Gilligan, Sen. Greg Dolezal and Rep. Todd Jones speak on a panel about K-12 legislation at a townhall at Sharon Forks Library on Thursday, Feb. 10. - photo by Sabrina Kerns

Several local conservative organizations held a town hall with state legislators at the Sharon Forks Library on Thursday, Feb. 10, to discuss K-12 legislation on Critical Race Theory, explicit material in media center books and more.

Forsyth County’s chapter of No Left Turn in Education, a national political organization fighting for legislation for K-12 schools, hosted the town hall alongside the Forsyth County Republican Party, Forsyth County Tea Party and the Forsyth County Young Republicans.

During the event, Mike Valdes, a local parent and member of No Left Turn in Education, moderated a panel with Republican state Reps. Todd Jones (District 25) and Sheri Gilligan (District 24) along with Sen. Greg Dolezal (District 27).

The panelists answered a series of questions presented by each of the organizations about issues currently facing K-12 education and what legislation is being considered during the current legislative session before opening questions to the crowd.

CRT and diversity programs

Several questions from the organizations and crowd centered around Critical Race Theory, which education leaders and experts across the U.S. have agreed is not taught in K-12 schools but has recently been used by conservative groups as a catch-all term for some diversity and equity programs.

One member of the Forsyth County Young Republicans asked the legislators what part they can take to potentially strip the Georgia Department of Education of funds for the continuation of programs such as the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan in Forsyth County Schools.

Jones explained that much of the funding that goes to local education boards from the state department is based on certain formulas that must be adhered to such as Quality Basic Education Funding, which is decided based on the number of students in school districts.

“There is this almost misguidance that …. we have the ability to appropriate [the budget] in any way we deem appropriate, and in fact, that’s not the case,” Jones said.

He pointed out, instead, that local boards have more options in how they spend budgets, with approximately half of their funding coming from local property tax payments.

Dolezal also said that legislators are currently discussing the possibility of withholding a percentage of QBE funding from school systems that are teaching “divisive ideology” as part of its curriculum.

 

School choice

A member of the Forsyth County Tea Party asked the state legislators specifically about what conversations they have taken part in during this legislative session about school choice for parents.

The argument around school choice, which has gained national attention especially over the past year, suggests that public education funding should follow students to schools or services that best fit their needs whether that be homeschool, private schools or other options.

Opponents to school choice, however, argue that this would draw needed funds away from public schools and cause further issues.

Gilligan said conversations surrounding school choice are active in the legislation right now, and she believes they will be able to make progress toward that choice for parents.

“This year is the year where I think we’re going to have the most conservative legislation that you will ever get,” Gilligan said.

Jones said they are also closely watching a bill in South Carolina introduced this year where public education funding would follow the child instead of the institution. For now, he said they are trying to understand if moving that funding is a good idea and how exactly to implement it.

In theory, he said it sounds like a good idea, “but we don’t want to have unintended consequences.”

Overall, he said they all three agree that the choice should be in parents’ hands.

town hall
Community members stand outside the townhall meeting with signs protesting the removal and banning of books from school media centers. - photo by Sabrina Kerns

Obscenity and media center book removals

School media center books have become a talking point in recent months both in Forsyth County and across the nation, especially as Forsyth County Schools recently announced the removal of eight books in its media centers for containing “explicit content.”

With some around the nation arguing for the labeling or removal of books containing LGBTQ characters or themes, this district-wide book removal in Forsyth sparked larger concerns over library censorship.

The conversation at the town hall on Thursday, however, centered specifically on what legislators can do about obscenity in media center books and school curricula.

Gilligan said there has been a push in legislative discussions to hold school systems accountable for the material offered to students in school media centers, noting that librarians specifically would not be held criminally accountable for schoolbook offerings.

“These types of materials do not belong on school library shelves,” Gilligan said.

After giving the legislators a chance to speak on the issue, Valdes addressed comments from other community members and groups suggesting that No Left Turn in Education and other conservative groups are pushing for library censorship and the removal of books that don’t align with their personal beliefs.

Valdes said they have never advocated for “the removal of things we don’t agree with.” He said they want to ensure, as parents, that students are not exposed to explicit material “that shouldn’t be there” in the schools.

 

Forsyth County BOE

Valdes said Forsyth County Board of Education Chairman Wes McCall could not make it to the panel Thursday, but provided a statement that Valdes read to the crowd.

“We believe that, as a school system, we are either getting better or getting worse,” the statement reads. “We are never just the status quo. I believe that for our school system to get better, we need two things: parental involvement and time. Nothing, and I mean nothing, changes overnight.”

But to help with parent involvement, McCall personally advocated for much of the same legislation discussed during Thursday’s event, saying school choice, parent opt-in clauses and funding for the Georgia Accreditation Commission would all help the future of education.

Other local organizations have also argued recently for parent opt-in clauses, forms parents must sign for their students to take part in certain school activities, over opt-out clauses that students can easily keep from their parents.

Then, further funding for the Georgia Accreditation Commission would ensure schools in the area have other large accreditation company options outside of Cognia, which some have criticized for its stated commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

“Looking forward, I would say we need to continue to build a school system that is for Forsyth County and Forsyth County only,” McCall stated. “We need to make sure there is good communication between parents, principals and Board of Education members.”

Before the end of the townhall on Thursday, Valdes announced his plans to run for the Forsyth County Board of Education District 2 seat. Vice Chair Kristin Morrissey currently holds the board seat, and she has not yet announced if she plans to run for re-election this year.

Valdes emphasized that he would be happy to work with McCall and the other board members to push more for this legislation and search for further local solutions.