The Legislature has a fondness for the quick fix as demonstrated by its hasty vote last year to trim the nine-person DeKalb school board to seven members or fewer.
Concerned about civility and cooperation on the historically raucous DeKalb board, the lawmakers believed they could foster more efficiency by mandating fewer members. Instead, Senate Bill 79 has sparked acrimony and accusations.
In the metro area, only the DeKalb, Clayton and Atlanta school boards have nine members, and each has faced challenges in recent years with governance and with complying with accreditation standards. DeKalb had had a seven-member board, but expanded to nine members in 2001.
The unanswered question in this debate is whether the school board stumbled because it had nine members or nine members who simply couldn’t coalesce.
While a state commission on school board excellence recommended school boards have no more than seven members, I am not sure that seven people can’t squabble and bicker as much as nine.
Regardless, SB 79 was passed and essentially given to the DeKalb school board to recommend new maps. No suggestions or maps were forthcoming, according to legislators, although school board members disagree. That forced legislators to refashion the maps on their own and the outcome has been a disaster.
“The school board has been 100 percent missing-in-action in having any visible, public and honest discussion with my constituents,” said State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, during a recent meeting on the matter.. “Yet, they are blaming us for this debacle.”
In defense of the school board’s reticence, state Rep. Michele Henson, D-Stone Mountain, pointed out, “We were asking them to cut members of their own body, something we have never been asked to do.”
School board members did spring into action when a committee of state lawmakers recommended that the school board shrink not to seven but five members, citing the platinum reputation of the five-member board in Gwinnett, an even larger county than DeKalb.
The problem was that legislators redrew the school board districts around the five school board members whose terms expire in 2014 and eliminated the four members up for re-election this year. DeKalb elects its school board members under a staggered calendar, and the law doesn’t allow redrawing maps to boot officials out of office before their terms are completed.
With that constraint, five single-member districts tilted in favor of south DeKalb representation resulted. The five standing board members under the new map were Sarah Copelin-Wood, Donna Edler, Jay Cunningham, Nancy Jester and Gene Walker.
And thus began the complaints that north and central DeKalb were being shortchanged and that the new board would not reflect the county’s diversity.
Allegations of racism angered state Rep. Rep. Dee Dawkins-Haigler, D-Lithonia. “People are unhappy with a five-member district,” she said. “But where was the outrage when SB 79 came up in the first place? Everyone told us that Gwinnett was the best school system with its five- member board. Well, we have followed Gwinnett with a five-member board and now everyone is up in arms.”
As for concerns about diversity with a five-member DeKalb board, Dawkins-Haigler noted that Gwinnett’s board — an all-white body — does not reflect that county’s vast diversity and no one complains. “I could have cared less how the five board members looked as it long it was five,” she said.
State Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, doesn’t blame the school board for the impasse and chaos. “We didn’t handle this very well last year. I got this bill in the Senate on the last day and I assumed that it had been researched by the House. Obviously, it hadn’t because we now know we can’t shorten people’s terms.”
Millar has proposed delaying the entire process until 2015 and shortening board terms as they expire so everyone faces election in 2014 for the seven new seats. If all nine board members choose to run again, two board members in each end of the county would face off under Millar’s plan, thus defusing any charges of favoring one area over another in the reduction to seven members.
“At the end of the day, you get to vote for seven individuals at one time,” he said. “The five-person map wasn’t well received. If you put together a map, whether we want to face it or not, there are north/south divisions in the county that come up. This removes that.”
Rep. Oliver has also filed a bill, House Bill 671, to address the problem created last year. Her bill calls for board members to serve out their terms. The bill states: The General Assembly by local law, to be effective on January 1, 2013, shall divide DeKalb County into seven single-member education districts for purposes of electing the members of the board of education. On January 1, 2013, the members of the board of education representing former Education Districts 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 shall be deemed to be representing the new districts in which their respective residences are located. In the 2012 nonpartisan general election, members shall be elected to the remaining two districts of the new seven-member board of education and shall take office on January 1, 2013.
“I agree that our Day 40 Board size reduction in the last session had gaps, and that is why I pre- filed HB 671 in November — to get better ideas on the table. I think Fran Millar’s plan to delay until 2014 is workable. We can fix it.” says Oliver.
“At the end of the day, the Legislature is responsible for this, not the school board,” said Millar.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog