The two candidates faced nearly as many questions as there were people in attendance. Moderator Charles Wilson of the Walker County Tea Party posed a dozen questions, followed by a few from the audience.
Deffenbaugh introduced himself, stating that there is a great difference in the direction that District One would take based on which party is elected in the race.
He pledged to focus on job growth, keeping government small, along with “life and liberty for all citizens, even the unborn.”
McMahan, a teacher at the Performance Learning Center, emphasized his concern about educational issues in light of the reduced school calendar in Georgia, and an amendment question on the ballot for charter schools, which would financially impact public schools.
“We have two-thirds of our school systems in the state on a reduced calendar year. That is a huge embarrassment to our state,” McMahan said. He also seeks full funding of the Hope Scholarship for students of families making less than $120,000 annually.
According to Georgia Association of Educator’s statistics, 4,280 teachers have lost their jobs in the past four years, while 37,400 students have been added to classrooms.
Charter school amendment
The only question that was specifically directed at one of the candidates regarded an amendment decision on the ballot.
“Mr. McMahan, as a teacher, if you agree that student success is important, why do you not support the parents’ right to choose their educational setting, such as a public school, charter school or the voucher system, if they believe that is what is best for their child?” moderator Charles Wilson asked.
Charter schools can operate at a lower cost than public schools, as they are exempted from the state salary guidelines for teachers, providing similar benefits and the ability to reject students based on performance or disciplinary issues.
“I just don’t see where a private, for-profit company is going to have the concerns of the students first and foremost in their minds. They’re concern, like any other company, is going to be about the bottom line and profit margins,” McMahan said.
McMahan believes in parental choice but questions the motivation of the amendment with 96 percent of the funding coming from out of state and a few wealthy people supporting it.
“A lot of (public) schools don’t want parent participation,” Deffenbaugh said, clarifying that he was uncertain if that was applicable to schools in Dade and Walker counties.
“There are charter schools throughout the state. Some are public and some are private. This amendment is not needed to keep those schools running,” McMahan said. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to start creating a whole round of new schools when we can’t even support the ones we’ve got.”
In 2009, a proposal of a magnet or charter school was considered by officials in Walker County. Superintendent Melissa Mathis proposed a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) school concept with project-based learning at the Saddle Ridge Elementary and Middle School.
Some parents were supportive, but others were “fearful of change or selectivity” in how students would be enrolled at the school, according to Mathis. Others questioned if it would compromise other schools in the system; and objections to a random lottery draw for enrollment was also a concern.
School board member Jim Smith has been a strong supporter of charter schools in Georgia but is even more strongly opposed to the amendment. He maintains that numerous charter schools have been built within the gated communities of Atlanta, which dramatically departs from the core purpose of public education in serving all children. He fears how the amendment could affect economically challenged families, while siphoning funds from traditional schools.
“Why create a whole new branch of government, at a cost of one million dollars?” Smith said. “A charter school can already be approved locally by a school board or at the state level by state DOE officials.”
Two Ombudsman academies (a private alternative school franchise from Wisconsin) are contracted by Walker County schools in LaFayette and Rossville, which are also currently operated in 20 Georgia counties and 19 other states.
The amendment would create a seven-person committee, three members appointed by the governor and two members from both the president of the Senate and speaker of the House.
It developed as a result of the 2011 Georgia Supreme Court ruling that the state’s involvement in establishing charter schools was unconstitutional.
The loss of local control and the repeated decreased funding of public schools are McMahan’s primary concerns.
“Where is the additional money going to come from?” McMahan said. “It makes no sense to me financially.” He would be fine with school vouchers as long as schools aren’t penalized.
“The most amount of money they are going to get is about six or seven thousand dollars per students,” Deffenbaugh said. “But that will come out of the budget.”
Deffenbaugh is undecided how he will vote on the amendment. “There are some issues with the way the amendment is written. I see some pluses and minuses in it and will continue to evaluate how I am going to vote.”
The preamble states, “Provides for improving student achievement and parental involvement through more public charter school options,” as written by Gov. Nathan Deal.
McMahan, and numerous teachers throughout Georgia, view the statement as misleading and coercively seeking a “yes” vote.
He believes that the local election of school board members allows parents to have more direct control in their schools, and if a charter school were seeking to locate in the county, local oversight would be preferred over an unelected commission.
Deffenbaugh believes the amendment was initiated by parents seeking an alternative to traditional public schools.
“Here in this area we have other problems too, in that, we have Baylor, McCallie, Chattanooga Christian and probably ten other Christian schools that have started up because parents feel that is what they need for their students,” Deffenbaugh said. “There are a lot of people attending private schools because they want choices.”
“I don’t think Dade or Walker are large enough (school systems) to sustain having two school systems,” Deffenbaugh said. “A place like Atlanta could easily do that.”
According to the Georgia Charter School Association website there are 53 charter schools, among the 132 charter schools listed by the Georgia Department of Education website.
Many of those schools are in the metro Atlanta area. There is also one located in Dalton and two more in Rome.
“There is no need for this amendment to preserve the charter schools that already exist, but the amendment and pre-amble make it sound that way,” Deffenbaugh said.
“I am in favor of the voucher system, even to the point of taking money from the existing students,” Deffenbaugh said. “The parents want results.”
McMahan clarified that if a local school board rejects a charter school that there is an appeals process for approval if a charter school would choose to locate in any county.
McMahan has signed the $100 limitation on lobbyist gifts and would seek campaign finance reforms, hoping Georgia will join nine other states’ repeal of Citizens United ruling that allows unlimited corporate contributions to political campaigns.
Deffenbaugh does not like the proposal in its current form.
The two men agreed on the second question, that parental notification should be required for an abortion. McMahan added that he would like to see the age of consent raised to 18.
They also agreed that a “zero-based” balanced budget approach is important, but both questioned if it could be accomplished in a 40-day legislative session. Deffenbaugh would seek to institute that measure gradually over several years if possible.
Health care exchanges “under Obamacare” and the expanded state role in Medicaid is a chief concern of Tea Party supporters, and the focus of another question.
Deffenbaugh thinks it is a complex issue that even the federal government doesn’t fully understand and he wants to wait to see how the health care exchanges could be implemented. He compared it to the “bullying” that took place with the proposed T-SPLOST tax for transportation, but shares Gov. Deal’s position opposing the state expansion of Medicaid, which was projected to provide coverage for an estimated 650,000 low-income Georgians.
“My mother has had cancer four times in twenty years and she is alive, first of all because she is a very stubborn and tough woman, but she is also alive because she has had Tri-Care health insurance from our government. If she hadn’t had that she would be dead now,” McMahan said. “There are a lot of middle class families these days who are one bad accident or one terrible illness away from bankruptcy.”
Georgia would receive $36 billion federally for the program but would be required to contribute $4 billion over ten years, according to McMahan.
Another concern over the United Nations Agenda 21 program regarding sustainable development considers the move to be an “erosion of American sovereignty” and that the U.N. would interfere in individual property right.
McMahan simplified the context as an imminent domain issue, with acceptance in cases of infrastructure expansion, but he opposes utilizing imminent domain for private development purposes.
Deffenbaugh is more wary of the U.N., believing “their incompetence” is a threat that he would seek to pre-empt with any state measures necessary.
“Whether we need a law like Alabama (first anti-Agenda 21 law enacted) has or not, we will have to wait and see,” Deffenbaugh said.
Both of the candidates also agreed to work toward repealing the penalty that was implemented on regions of Georgia that did not pass the T-SPLOST bill.
Wilson stated the T-SPLOST bill is “rooted in Agenda 21” based on Tea Party values.
“It was an ill-timed tax increase that was dead on arrival,” Deffenbaugh said.
Neither of the men agreed with SB-469, which seeks to make non-violent civil disobedience (protesting) a felony, created by Sen. Bon Balfour who sits on the Insurance and Labor Committee in the Georgia Senate.
McMahan viewed the bill as “preposterous” and a First Amendment violation, while Deffenbaugh believed it was “bullying people into complying with them.”
The concept of “regionalization” of assets is a case-by-case basis for both candidates with cost effectiveness being an important factor. Deffenbaugh cited Moccasin Bend regional sewer plans as “very effective” while McMahan believes the Lookout Mountain Drug Task Force is a cost effective resource that serve both counties in District 1.
Deffenbaugh closed by stating that “no matter who gets elected here we’re going to have a hard time being freshman, to get a lot of things done, but I look forward to that challenge.”
McMahan seeks to be on the education and veterans committees if elected. He served in the Navy.
A long-term substitute teacher would fill McMahan’s teaching position while at the annual 40-day legislative session, if elected. Deffenbaugh is semi-retired.
Encouraging industry to locate in the district, views on improvements for the region and priorities were among a few questions from audience members.
Write-in commissioner candidate Ales Campbell asked how the two candidates would communicate with constituents, and both agreed they would set up evening meeting to accommodate citizen’s hectic schedules.