The 5-4 split on the Atlanta Board of Education is getting wider with this letter to the community by the four-member faction opposed to the change in leadership:
Dear Concerned Atlanta Citizen:
Atlanta’s native son, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Nobel Peace Prize Winner and graduate of tlanta Public School’s Booker T. Washington High School) said, “I am not interested in power for power’s sake, but I’m interested in power that is moral, that is right and that is good.”
We four stand united in our opposition to the September 13 purported election of Khaatim Sheerer El as Chair and Yolanda Johnson as Vice Chair of the Atlanta School Board, not because we are interested in power for power’s sake, but because we believe the election violated the law and is detrimental to the well-being of Atlanta’s students. Moreover, we believe that this election and the behaviors linked with it, place student achievement secondary to personal agendas. We are concerned that this action will trigger an investigation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) of its accreditation of the Atlanta Public School System. Finally, we believe that even the perception of a dysfunctional Board will hinder the system’s ability to attract and retain a quality Superintendent. That should be of utmost concern to all those who value the welfare of this city and its students.
The governing authority of the Atlanta School Board is its charter, established by the Georgia General assembly. The Charter specifies that the nine members of the Atlanta School Board will elect their chair and vice-chair at the Board’s first annual meeting in January of even number years. At the Board organization meeting in January of 2010, the board unanimously elected LaChandra Butler Burks Chair and Cecily Harsch-Kinnane Vice Chair, each to serve a two-year term.
The Charter also governs how Board members may be removed from office and enumerates six grounds for removal. The recent attempt to change Board leadership was not predicated on any of these enumerated bases, nor did the attempt follow procedures outlined by the Charter. Instead, five Board members (Brenda Muhammad, Khaatim Sheerer El, Nancy Meister, Yolanda Johnson, and Courtney English) voted to amend internal Board policy to provide an additional method of removing officers and to do so by a simple majority, despite existing Board policy which requires a two-thirds vote to remove an officer or to amend Board policy.
These five members voted to make these changes despite repeated advice from Veleter Mazyck, the school system’s attorney. Ms. Mazyck, who has over 20 years experience of providing legal advice to school systems, made it very clear to the board that these changes were in conflict with both the State Charter and other existing Board procedures. Legal information provided to board members also included a second opinion that had been obtained from an expert outside attorney that supported Ms. Mazyck’s position. We made a request to make the outside opinion public. However, the five voted against allowing the public to view this opinion. Despite numerous warnings of the potential for adverse ramifications for the district, the five proceeded against the recommendation of the APS Attorney.
These actions have been so divisive that Atlanta’s mayor found it necessary to attempt to help resolve the issue. At the August 16, 2010 Board meeting, Mayor Kasim Reed made a dramatic, special appearance. In his remarks, he noted that the correct authority for interpreting matters of law was the State Attorney General. He asked for a cooling off period and advised the Board to obtain the opinion of the Attorney General before proceeding. The five Board members withdrew the proposed changes after his request, and the Board unanimously voted to seek the opinion of the Attorney General.
On August 24, 2010, after a board retreat facilitated by the Panasonic Foundation to promote good school governance, the board rescinded the request of an opinion of the Attorney General at the request of Khaatim Sheerer El. His stated reason for the motion to rescind was a show of good faith to the community that we could work out our differences. The Board agreed and also passed a motion that if there remains a lack of consensus, the board would again seek the advice of the Attorney General.
Despite this commitment to resolve our internal difference and the unanimous agreements to seek the advice of the Attorney General before proceeding with these controversial changes, the same five Board members added their proposed changes to the September Board agenda. As a result, the school system’s attorney reactivated the request to the State Attorney General. Rather than wait for a ruling by the Attorney General, as requested by the Mayor of Atlanta, the five Board members voted to amend the Board policies to allow for removal of the sitting Chair and Vice Chair by a simple majority vote, then voted for the removal of these officers, and voted to install a new Chair and Vice Chair. In discussion some board members stated that the opinion of the State Attorney General is “just an opinion.” We disagree. The Georgia Constitution clearly provides that the State Attorney General is the appropriate authority for interpreting matters of law. We await the opinion from the Attorney General.
Thank you for allowing us the opportunity to provide you the facts. We believe, as elected officials and servants of the public, that we are obligated to act in accordance with the laws and regulations that govern the Atlanta Board of Education. Join us in saying yes to the rule of law and no to an illegal coup d’état. The students and citizens of Atlanta deserve no less.
For OUR Children,
LaChandra Butler Burks
Reuben McDaniel, III