Today’s Courier Herald Column:
The principle of local control is as central to my political belief system as any I hold in politics and governance. People are best governed by those who live closest to them. The electeds and their constituents live in the same community. They see each other at the grocery store, at ballfields, and at church. If and when those elected officials fail to meet the needs of those they serve, it is easier to let the officials know directly and is significantly easier to mount a successful grassroots effort to replace them. At least in theory.
Yesterday, Governor Nathan Deal signed HB 79 into law. The bill is designed as a last-resort stop gap measure to allow Governor Deal to replace school board members of Atlanta Public Schools if it is determined by late summer that APS is not making sufficient progress to avoid losing accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. SACS has already placed Atlanta Schools on probation. The system is mired in an ongoing scandal for cheating on standardized tests and an apparent ongoing cover up. The system is searching for a new Superintendent. And most importantly to SACS, the school board responsible for hiring that Superintendent is dysfunctional and counterproductive.
And thus, an apparent conflict exists with the principle of local control. The school board last stood for election in 2009. They have been duly elected by the citizenry of those they shop, play, and worship with. Yet, there is clear evidence if changes are not made, either in behavior of board members or by installing new members, Atlanta Public Schools faces the loss of accreditation. Governor Deal is now Atlanta’s lifeline to stop this from happening. Now at least a part-time resident of Atlanta, Governor Deal’s power over APS hardly represents exertion of local control. Except, it does.
The laws that cover the election and any potential re-call of elected officials are written and enforced at the state level. Thus, citizens at the local level are essentially powerless to correct the mistakes that were apparently made in 2009 until 2013. By then, accreditation could be lost, and long term damage to the city, region, and state’s reputation could have long since been inflicted.
Mayor Kasim Reed telegraphed his intentions and a warning to the school board when talking to the Atlanta Press Club in late January, saying “there are times the Mayor needs to be outraged” and signaled that the board did not have the 9 months allowed by SACS to get their act together before there would be other consequences. Reed worked closely with the legislature and Governor on this matter, and supports it now as law.
Atlanta Representatives Ed Lindsey and Kathy Ashe, a Republican and a Democrat, sponsored the bill. Lindsay told us at PeachPundit.com that “Should the Board members stray from their focus on their fiduciary duty to Atlanta’s next generation and devolve into political bickering and self serving power struggles, strong action by the State School Board and the Governor will be required.”
Like the school board itself, all opinions on the matter are not unanimous. House Minority Chairperson Stacy Abrams calls the bill “well intentioned” but “problematic”, fearing that a change of the entire school board could extend SACS review period, continuing the probationary period an additional year. Abrams worked closely with Governor Deal on the proposal to reform HOPE, so her criticism, delicate as it is, should not be dismissed as partisan posturing.
The most evidence of non-local control comes with the fact that the law still must be submitted to the U.S. Justice Department for review under Section V of the Voting Rights Act, as the law deals with elections and representation. The law must be submitted within 45 days, but there is a legitimate concern that the Department will even have time to do a preliminary evaluation, much less a ruling, prior to the July timeframe a change in board would be considered.
At the end of the day, however, HB 79 represents more of a collaborative effort to fix a legitimate problem than state government encroaching upon local turf. If I were a member of the Atlanta School Board, I would have to look at the coalition that has formed and stands ready to make changes, and would make the changes myself. Time is up for this board. They must get it right, or get out. For now, that decision remains purely local.