As a new reporter fresh out of graduate school, I worked at a paper in northern New Jersey and covered every board, commission and traffic accident in several towns. I liked school board detail least.
The first reason was that I was 23, had no kids and couldn’t muster enthusiasm for the long debates over what color to paint the high school halls — one school board member was a “colorist” and had strong feelings about soothing tones — or whether there ought to be stop sign or traffic light two blocks from the school. But the school boards also had the most political drama, the most intrigue. Almost immediately upon taking over the beat I would get phone calls from school board members assailing a colleague’s motives or alleging conspiracies. I could not understand how adults could get so caught up in what seemed petty power grabs, at least to a young reporter.
Those memories came back to me Monday when the Atlanta Board of Education devoted an inordinate amount of time to whether it could legally change the number of members necessary to oust the chair — which seems to the goal. It is not clear whether the next step after replacing the chair would be to go after the superintendent or simply take control to have tighter rein on the system.
The board — which started its work session late — then disappeared into executive sessions for a matter that I am still not sure qualified under open records law since this was no pending litigation but a difference of opinion on what the charter allowed and whether the board was free to seek legal advice directly from someone else. One board member had obtained a letter from the General Assembly legislative counsel, which she and her crew argued ought to prevail.
(I have to point out that the Legislature’s legal counsel has overseen many laws that are later overturned in court, so I am not sure why it is considered definitive. You only have to look at our half-baked sex offender laws that never held up in court to wonder what kind of legal advice the Legislature is getting. Of course, a big problem is that pandering lawmakers often ignore their legal counsel. That practice would end tomorrow if we only held elected officials personally liable for lawsuits resulting from stupid laws that they passed over the objections of their own legal counsel,)
These school board antics kept an audience of at least 200 people twiddling their thumbs. (Some of us used the time to discuss which is the most functional school board in metro Atlanta. Gwinnett was the consensus.)
What happens to smart people when they get elected to a public office?
How could five members of the nine-member APS board think this power play was more important than taking a lead on this CRCT mess and restoring public confidence in a system that has been badly damaged by confirmation of widespread cheating at 12 of its schools and troubling incidences at many more?
I agree with all the speakers during the public portion of the APS meeting: Whatever this plotting is about, stop it and get down to the serious problems at hand.
When the board did turn to the CRCT issue, it listened politely to Dr. Hall as she outlined a thorough and detailed report on how APS was going to respond to the Blue Ribbon Panel’s recommendations on cleaning up testing and providing help to students whose scores were altered. And they asked good questions, including how much was all this going to cost and how many kids were affected. Neither of those questions were answered.
It was also clear that there was a lot of support for Dr. Hall in that room among the parents and community members on hand. And those parents offered a reason that many of Hall’s critics overlook: These folks who live in Altanta and whose children and grandchildren attended APS know what the system used to be like. And they think Hall has changed it for the better. I talked to a woman raising her three grandchildren, all of whom attend APS schools. She told me that the system is “a world better from what it was when my own five children were there.”
Those at arm’s length who argue that Hall has to go aren’t talking to these parents and grandparents. Folks keep citing Clayton County and noting that I was a critic of that administration, but I went to a lot of parent meetings and school board meetings during the Clayton crisis. Those parents had a much differnet point of view; their system was not better. They were not happy with its direction. They organized against the board and the superintendent.
It is not just that Hall has the support of the chamber types; she has a lot of support from the real APS clients, the parents.
Should that matter?
As an editorial writer, I often had to ask myself why so many voters re-elected lawmakers who did nothing or did damage. Part of it is that those lawmakers often reached out to voters and paid attention to the smaller issues, and that’s what voters valued. Did the lawmaker help get new band uniforms? Did she or he show up at the community picnic? Did he or she take a picture with their son’s soccer team? Did they listen to complaints about lines at the car tag office?
Those are all small acts, but they matter to people. Hall has apparently done a lot of stuff that matters to parents. And that may be enough to keep her in office until she steps down next year.