Trying to delve into the inner workings of the deeply divided Atlanta school board is an exercise in futility and confusion.
That’s OK, though, because the board members’ simmering jealousies, resentments and suspicions of each other don’t really matter much to anybody but the members themselves.
On the issues that matter, achieving clarity is actually pretty simple.
– The board clearly isn’t divided by issues regarding education or policy or the welfare of students; it’s torn by disputes about who gets to be in charge, who said what to whom when, who gets the blame and who gets to say “I told you so.”
That’s bad enough. Trying to resolve that kind of internal, personal dispute through a lawsuit, as some board members are now threatening, would only cement the animosities now dividing the board. It would be an admission of failure, not a step toward resolution.
– The recent vote by a five-member board majority to toss aside the board’s duly elected leadership and install a new chairman was a clear violation of state law. The board has been informed of that fact by the state attorney general and by its own lawyer.
– If the board’s five-member majority continues to defy the attorney general’s opinion, it invites a loss of accreditation. Mark Elgart, president and CEO of the agency that accredits the district’s high schools, made the situation as explicit as possible in this week’s marathon board meeting.
“If you violate the state charter and you stay the course, it will cause problems with your accreditation,” he warned board members.
– If the district nonetheless continues on this course and is threatened with loss of accreditation, APS board members would almost certainly be stripped of their positions.
Earlier this year, Gov. Sonny Perdue signed Senate Bill 84, a school-board reform bill that gives him the power to intervene directly if a school or school district is threatened with loss of accreditation.
Under that new law, the governor has the power to suspend or permanently remove board members of such a district and replace them with his own appointees. Any Atlanta school board members who doubt the willingness, perhaps eagerness, of state officials to intervene in district affairs might want to think again in light of state GBI investigators now questioning district personnel regarding the CRCT cheating scandal.
(<strong>CORRECTION</strong>: <em>The provisions of SB84 cited above apply only to board members appointed or elected after July 1, 2010, which would exclude current members of the APS board. However, previous law also gives the governor authority to remove school board members after hearings before an administrative law judge. Perdue has used that power to remove school board members in Clayton and Warren counties</em>.)
– The contract of Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall expires next June, and given all that has transpired, it seems likely that one way or another, her largely successful tenure as head of the Atlanta system will be coming to an end.
If that occurs, the board will soon find itself trying to find a replacement for Hall. No top-notch professional of Hall’s caliber is going to be drawn to a district with a deeply divided and thus unpredictable board.
In other words, the stakes are very high for the district, its employees, the children in its care and for the members of the board. If they cannot bring themselves to repair the damage they have done by their internal bickering, they jeopardize a decade’s worth of hard-won academic progress.
According to the five-member majority that installed Khaatim Sherrer El as the new chairman, the change was motivated by unhappiness with the previous board leadership’s handling of the CRCT cheating scandal.
On the surface, that’s a valid concern. For too long, Hall and the board did not seem to fully grasp the gravity of the threat that the scandal posed to the district and its reputation; as a result, they have lost control of the investigation and its outcome.
Under such a situation, board discontent was probably inevitable and even necessary.
However, El and others now in the board majority voiced no strong public dissent to that approach. Their discontent seems more driven by concerns about process — how decisions were made, and by whom — than the decisions themselves. In particular, El and his colleagues claim they were excluded from the creation of an outside commission to investigate the cheating scandal, a step that previous board leaders negotiated with the private, nonprofit Atlanta Education Fund.
Is their resentment justified? The answer is, it doesn’t matter, not with so much at stake. Get over it, follow the law, act as leaders, do your job.