No One Wins When Local Governments Fail

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

35 educators are now under indictment as what hopefully will be the final chapter in the cheating scandal in Atlanta Public Schools.  The indictments include the charge of racketeering under RICO statutes.  This essentially means that Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard is charging those in charge of Georgia’s capitol city schools as running a corrupt organization.  There is no rejoicing in this fact.

The tragedy of this scandal is that it appears the highest levels of Atlanta’s school administration appear to believe it was more important to project a façade of success via faked test scores than it was to admit that the system was failing some kids.  The children who were cheated of the education that administrators apparently decided was too difficult to administer won’t be able to get that time back.

But there is yet another ancillary problem that the legacy of this scandal will continue to contribute toward.  The failure of yet another intown urban institution will serve as a battle cry for those who wish to distance the suburbs from Atlanta’s core.

Many pieces of local legislation were aimed at various was to use state legislation to control excesses of Fulton County government during the 2013 General Assembly.  DeKalb County has another group of residents in the northern portion of the county studying the idea of forming a new city to change the governance over much of their public services.

The schools in DeKalb are facing loss of accreditation.  The DeKalb county government is facing a criminal probe of its own.  And Atlanta has a once touted school superintendent reporting to jail to post bond and pose for a high profile perp walk.

The “optics” of the situation are stark.  The institutions of the city’s majority minority core are facing various crises of leadership.  Suburbanites looking for an excuse to distance themselves from the city’s core have fresh grist for their mill.  Those in North Fulton have long sought a divorce from those living in the City of Atlanta and those in the southern part of the county.

Many parents stay together for the good of the children.  Despite “for the children” being one of the most deceptive phrases used in politics, perhaps Fulton – and the rest of the Atlanta region – needs to think of the children before making any further plans to balkanize.

Those students caught in the failing school systems are part of the innocent life that so many of the suburban Republicans find universally precious while still in the womb.  It is hardly right to then condemn them for the choices of who their parents elect.  All Georgians must assume a seat at the table to correct the systemic problems we face in this area.

There must be an acknowledgement of a failure of leadership to address many of the problems faced within the city’s core.  This failure should be owned by both local leaders and those further up the state’s political power structure.  This is neither a black failure nor a white one.  It is a Georgia one, and if allowed to continue all Georgians will suffer.

Suburbanites cannot pretend that removing themselves from government entanglements with others within the region will make problems go away.  Likewise, leaders within municipal power structures must be held accountable for decisions made at the local level, as well as the consequences of failure.

In short, each side must find a way to seek common ground and some form of cooperative governance based on the understanding that a metropolitan region containing half the state’s population will not be successful with a thriving suburbs and a failed poverty stricken center.  For without a healthy core, those suburbs will not thrive.  Despite the wishes of independence, interdependence is the only reality that can serve as the basis for success.

It is easy for suburbanites to point to the failings of those in the core and say that’s why they need to be separated.  It’s easy for the leaders within that core to blame the isolation and lack of support from the more affluent areas for failure.

So long as everyone is asserting blame, there is no foundation for success.  Both sides must seek understanding of the other, and the need for the other’s cooperation, if the Atlanta region is to be made whole and successful.

11 comments

  1. DeKalb Wonkette says:

    Surprised no comments thus far. IMHO we will not navigate these shoals very well. Each “side” has a coherent but ultimately irreconcilable narrative of the issues that have brought us to this point.

    Atlanta has always been hungry for “just so” stories: “The city too busy too hate,” “The Atlanta miracle” etc. The entire situation leading up to the APS scandal would make for a great study in mass cognitive dissonance. Even when the facts were there, we didn’t wish to accept them.

    Maybe the place to begin healing local government and our relationships is to start having critical conversations as an entire community to identify what standards we expect from government.

  2. MattMD says:

    What is so surprising to me is how bad people are at evaluating risk. Seriously, how long would a rational person think that an organization as large as APS could get away with some of this behavior? It’s like the banks that gave out all those bad loans, don’t you think eventually the chickens are going to come home to roost?

    I live in Atlanta proper so I certainly don’t relish this but it really seems remarkable to me how dysfunctional the governments are in this region. Let’s look what has happened over the last 12 years. The DeKalb sheriff assassinates the sheriff-elect, Fulton SO made shoddy retirement investments and cannot even seem to run a jail which is their main job. Another one of their duties is to maintain courthouse security and they massively fail that with the Brain Nichols murders. Clayton is a basket-case and loses accreditation not to mention Victor Hill (currently under indictment) and that moronic DA they had, Jewell Scott. Now Atlanta has to deal with the APS scandal. DeKalb is on the verge of losing accreditation.

    Am I being too harsh? It just seems it’s one thing after another with no real end in sight. Is their anything approaching this type of scale of incompetence in Cobb, Gwinnett or Fayette during the last decade?

    • sockpuppet says:

      @MattMD:

      Two things.

      1. Your list is tiny compared that of Detroit and other cities with much more severe problems.
      2. Just as important, all of these aren’t in the same municipality. While throwing Clayton, DeKalb, Fulton and Atlanta’s issues all in the same box makes for good fodder for some, they are separate governments with different political classes, populations and issues. Basically, what is going on in Clayton right now doesn’t have squat to do with DeKalb, and if anything the city of Atlanta actually benefits from the issues with Fulton.

      Also, some of your other examples are questionable. Regarding the assassination of Derwin Brown, please recall that it happened because the voters of DeKalb correctly voted out his corrupt predecessor instead of allowing him to remain in office. Also, there have been no problems with the the DeKalb sheriff’s office since Sidney Dorsey left. The Brian Nichols incident happened because a criminal overpowered a (female) deputy, cracked her skull and stole her gun. That honestly could have happened anywhere, plus sadly courthouse shootings are not exactly uncommon (one happened in West Virginia just today, and there were several in the month of March). “DeKalb is on the verge of losing accreditation.” No they aren’t. SACS stated that they were over a year and possibly 2 away from removing DeKalb’s accreditation. Even had Governor Deal not acted, SACS would have waited until after the school board elections in 2014 before doing anything. SACS doesn’t pull accreditation immediately after warning districts and putting them on probation. They give districts quite awhile to get their acts together, and Clayton County finally losing it was a slow moving disaster that was years in the making that spanned at least a couple of school board elections.

      “It just seems it’s one thing after another with no real end in sight.”

      Again, hardly. The Atlanta school board has been reconstituted since the cheating scandal, and there hasn’t been any scandals in the mayor’s office since Bill Campbell left (and there also weren’t any real troubles before Campbell). Franklin and Reed dealt with major infrastructure, financial and public safety issues, and now the city is adding population, employers and has a budget surplus. As far as Fulton County goes, the bills aimed at Fulton County governance passed in this legislative session should address its alleged incompetence. The Victor Hill thing notwithstanding, Clayton County voters made huge turnovers in their county government in other positions. And as far as DeKalb goes, with the school board crisis now resolved, their biggest issue is the legal problems facing their CEO, and that may actually wind up benefiting the county if the problems with back to back CEOs (Vernon Jones before Ellis) results in the county going from an elected CEO to an appointed county manager.

      Again, were all of this the same city – if it were a single city or county government facing these problems instead of 4 separate governments – then you would be on to something. As it is, with the exception of Clayton County (who has economic problems as well as political governance ones), the problems afflicting each individual government are things that can easily be overcome. They are no different from the Gwinnett County commission corruption scandals, for example. Embarrassing of course, and beyond possibly costing Gwinnett (and the region) a badly needed airport, something that Gwinnett will easily move beyond.

  3. saltycracker says:

    Putting the heat on the suburbanites ?
    Betcha their input would be welcome with open minds !
    Bill Campbell expressed what others left unsaid: “It’s our turn…..”
    The DeKalb BOE tried to use the courts to hold their ground.

    Before anyone can be helped they need to recognize they have a problem and seek help.

    http://www.goodcharacter.com/YCC/AskingForHelp.html

    • sockpuppet says:

      @saltycracker:

      Excuse me, but they did precisely that with the law that allowed the REPUBLICAN governor to blow up school boards. It was a direct response to what happened in Clayton County and with APS, and trust me something like that would have never been enacted without a partisan, racially divisive fight in most states in this country.

      Also, for the record, those governments ask for help all the time only to get cold shoulders in response. It appears that your definition of “asking for help” is allowing Republicans to come in and run the city and county governments the way they used to (except that they were Democrats then before the politically convenient party switching). Your mind is no more “open” than those of the people that you are accusing.

  4. Pamdavidson says:

    This is Pam O’Dell from the O’Dell Report.
    I reported for northfulton.com on all the Fulton local bills. Charlie, you are right and very articulate in your solutions. However, the sides don’t talk.
    The Fulton legislative delegation as a South/North delegation don’t meet.
    So, it is a vicious,’ tit for tat’ political racial/partisian war that causes wounds that don’t heal in a Hatfield and Mc Coyish fashion. Both sides are taking aim at each other with the kids (Fulton residents) square in the middle.
    Grown-up leadership is required by leaders in the delegation to hold regular meetings and have decent communication so that suspicion and defensiveness don’t cause this continued warfare. Then, they can get to the business of governing.

  5. DavidTC says:

    The thing people need to realize that if Atlanta fails, the state fails. Or at least the suburbs of Atlanta fail. The suburbs of Atlanta exist _because_ of Atlanta.

    Considering how much business Atlanta brings to the state, it seems really rather absurd that we’re not willing to subsidize various aspects of it back.

    This is not to pretend to place all the blame on the state, of course, but I have to suggest that a lot of Atlanta’s problems are that it is trying to do too much with too little money. This is the _actual_ reason the schools are failing, and if the state invents way to punish failing schools without giving them the ability to not be failing schools, then, yes, crazy stuff will result.

    • mpierce says:

      I have to suggest that a lot of Atlanta’s problems are that it is trying to do too much with too little money. This is the _actual_ reason the schools are failing

      Central Office per pupil spending:
      Cobb – $228
      Gwinnett – $579
      State avg (not including APS) – $460
      APS – $2969

      Maybe it’s not “too little money”, but what they are doing with what they have?

  6. saltycracker says:

    Schools: “…..Atlanta’s problems are that it is trying to do too much with too little money. ”

    Not enough per pupil ? Not enough for capital expenses ? Not enough for after work pension and benefits for an early 50 yr old employee ? Not enough travel expenses for conferences ?
    Not enough sources of revenue from property taxes, gambling, grants, donations, fees, grants, free lunches, state & federal subsidies, sales taxes ?

    An employee empire will reject any disruptive technological change that might reduce staff and focus on the children’s learning.

    Next stop, casino’s for education.

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