Post Election Q&A
By Alex Saitta
July 15, 2016
Question: The council election didnít work out for you, why?
Alex: The other candidate got more votes, I guess. I lost.
Question: Any idea why?
Alex: The people gave me the most votes in the primary and I lost the run-off. Run-offs are tricky. Turnout was lower, a different mix of voters and all three candidates joined together on the other side. While my wife and I have been in Pickens 15 years, and we are raising our children and will retire here, the three have been here their entire lives with families and friends going back generations. It was too much for me to overcome and I lost by 177 votes.
Question: Close. Any regrets?
Alex: Not really. I ran a positive campaign, outlining the challenges the council faces and I said this is what Iíll bring to the table to help; you make the decision.
Question: So it was a positive experience?
Alex: Mostly. There is always a handful of supporters, and they are on all sides, who attack and smear the candidates. All sorts of lies were told; none of them true. I know it goes with the territory, but I understand why so many good people have absolutely no interest in running for office.
Question: Whatís next?
Alex: I was interested in the wide array of issues the county faces and thought I could help. If I could do both jobs, I would. Iíll remain on the school board, finish up this term and run for re-election in November. I like the school board and always have. Many said I was needed more on the board, so I think Iíll have support there too.
Question: Weíll find out in November. What are the issues youíll run on?
Alex: On a school board of six, no one board member can say he accomplished anything on his own, but most can say they had a hand in this or that. The most important accomplishment I had a direct hand in was the rising graduation rate. In 2010 when I became the chairman, the graduation rate was 71.2%. We made that a priority and set a goal of 80% graduation. We beefed-up remedial reading, lowered class sizes, expanded the Career Center and hired graduation coaches. This past year the graduation rate was 82.5%.
Question: A 10-point improvement. What else do you add?
Alex: A much needed financial perspective. Years ago, when there were tiny school houses with small budgets, public education was all about educating our children. Today, our school district has 2,000 employees and $180 million in annual spending. Public education is no longer only about educating our kids, but educating them plus the money to pay for it all. I was a financial analyst for 17 years, and have spent 12 years formulating school district budgets. That financial background and experience is needed on the board.
Question: You really are the financial conscience of the school board. Can you point to an instance where that has helped?
Alex: Many. Finance 101 says: 1) when income is this, you spend no more than this, 2) set priorities and target the money to the classroom, 3) in good times save money for a rainy day, to cushion against deep spending cuts when a recession hits, 4) tax increases are a last resort because we must grow local business and generate more and higher quality jobs for graduating students.
Question: OK, an example?
Alex: When the economy rolled over in 2009, the school district was running annual deficits of $3 million, had no savings, it was cutting teaching positions and borrowing to meet payroll -- the financial wheels were falling off. Because of my background I was elected chairman in 2010. We balanced budgets, shifted limited resources to the classroom and as things improved we started to build savings. We raised the percentage of the budget spent on instruction to 60%, or the highest it had been since I was on the board. During that time, the graduation rate rose and test scores improved. A win-win.
Question: Impressive. What else do you bring to the table?
Alex: My daughter Scarlett is a 9th grader in Pickens High School. Amber is in the charter school and will follow next year. I have a vested interest to do what is best for students. The charter school was started by teachers from Holly Springs elementary. Our daughters went to Holly Springs so we sent them there. Many teachers have their children in the charter school. It is a good school.
Question: You inform the public as well, and I like that.
Alex: Most public officials, every fourth year seek out the press, tell the public what they think and ask for your vote. Once they are elected, most disappear and you donít hear from them until they need your vote again. They are supposedly working for you, right? Do you want an employee who gets the job and then disappears for years? Or do you want to hire a guy who keeps you in the loop about what is going on and what he is doing throughout?
Question: The latter. At times you seem to say an awful lot.
Alex: Informing the public entails a lot, because many elected officials are working to hide things from the public. First, you have to do the research on the issue. Second, you have to inform the public on the facts you uncovered. I do that through letters to the editor, on my Facebook page, and with mailers to constituents like this one I created and paid for myself. Third, you give the public your point of view on all that. That requires common sense and it comes from all the doors Iíve knocked on over the years and conversations Iíve had with people like you on your door step. Those conversations have shaped my views. Fourth, you must have the courage to take a stand and speak up. Finally, you have to do what you say ó that is, if you did your research and said you are for something, in the end you should vote for it. That is, you must be trustworthy.
Question: Few politicians do all that. Can you give us an example where you have?
Alex: With the school closings. I researched the administrationís school closing plans and uncovered the facts like $6 million was spent to renovate AR Lewis and Holly Springs schools. That was borrowed money, on a loan we still have to pay off until 2032. I let the public know that in mailers, letters in the newspaper, on TV, and how I was against closing any schools, in particular our country schools. It took courage to speak up because most of the board would rather had me just shut-up. It culminated with me voting against closing the schools like I said I would. All that is still needed on the school board, because without it the public will be kept in the dark.
Question: I heard you really didnít want to keep the schools openÖ
Alex: You are being lied to. If you believe it, then you have been manipulated. In the end we get the government WE elect. For instance, we all complain about the US Congress and the President. The cold hard fact is we the people elected all of them. Iíve voted for the wrong candidate at times; we all have, but we must look beyond the chatter and smears and research the candidates. There is plenty of information out there on my stance and vote against closing schools. Please rely on the facts rather than listening to those who have ďheardĒ something and are trying to change your vote. (See the enclosed letter ó 1 of 11 I wrote against closing schools.)
Question: Any hope AR Lewis and Holly Springs will be opened again?
Alex: Iíd vote to reopen them tomorrow. I hope this election will change the board and maybe that could be reversed.
Question: I gather you donít agree with the direction of the school board now. Is that true?
Alex: Yes, in three ways. In 2008 the board agreed to renovate and then maintain ALL the schools. During the recession when there was no to little revenue growth, we managed to keep all schools open, maintained, and operating. Now revenue growth is the highest it has been in 10 years, so keeping all schools open could have easily been done. This board majority and the administration wants to close schools and make the remaining schools larger. I strongly oppose that.
Question: What is the second thing?
Alex: Before we were adding classroom teachers, lowering class sizes and putting a higher percentage of resources in the classroom. The last three years theyíve eliminated 65 classroom teaching positions, are raising class sizes and the percentage going to the classroom has fallen 5 points to 55.7%. With families breaking down, the behavior of many children is getting worse. Class sizes need to be smaller, not larger.
Question: We need to elect candidates who want smaller schools and smaller class sizes, right?
Alex: Right. Iím out voted on those things now. Third, the financial principles I detailed above have been pushed aside. The fiscal year just ended, the district spent more than came in for the first time in years. It was not due to an economic downturn, but overspending. Revenue was up $4.1 million and they spent $4.6 million more. Money is no longer targeted at the classroom, but the system as a whole. Savings are being drawn down and taxes are rising (1.5 mills) due to extra borrowing.
Question: Is that the first tax increase in 10 years?
Alex: School property tax rates have risen numerous times over the past 10 years ó in 2008, 2011, 2012 and 2015. School taxes will inch up in October too. The property tax rate was 128 mills in 2007, and today it is 165. How do you think they paid for all these new buildings, bake sales?
Look at the school budgets. Because of rising tax rates and growth in the number of properties, school district revenue has risen nearly 7% a year on average the past 10 years. Thatís a higher growth rate than wages, property values or the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The liberals in the county feel our government never has enough of your tax dollars, so they are trying to mislead you into thinking property tax rates havenít been raised in 10 years. Thatís simply untrue.
Question: Thank you Alex, and good luck in your election.
Alex: You are welcome.