If you want something done, assign it to someone who’s already busy.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed is certainly busy. When he’s not snowed under by the challenge of reforming a major city bureaucracy, he’s up in Washington trying to arrange federal funding for the Port of Savannah, or he’s over at the state Capitol lobbying legislators as the metro region’s top liaison with Georgia’s Republican leadership.
He’s become a human Swiss army knife — everyone has a job for him.
Most recently, of course, there’s talk of dumping the problems of the Atlanta public school system onto his plate as well, an idea that Reed himself appears to be contemplating.
I’m not at all sure that’s wise.
Yes, the Atlanta school board has become dysfunctional; yes, the district’s cheating scandal has given the entire city a black eye and called into question the integrity of district leadership. But are those problems due to some defect in the district’s governing structure that might be cured by putting it under the control of Atlanta’s mayor? Or are they instead related to the specific individuals who happen to be in charge right now?
Remember, we wouldn’t be giving control of the schools to Reed. We’d be giving it to the mayor of Atlanta, and there’s a difference. Reed has three years left in his first term, and nobody knows where his career might take him or who we might get next in that office. Not too long ago, remember, it was filled by a man named Bill Campbell.
In other words, it’s always dangerous to use a permanent structural change to try to solve what’s really a temporary personnel issue. And I think that’s what we have with the Atlanta School Board.
In its recent report on the Atlanta schools, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools noted that just a year ago, the APS board was recognized as one of the best school boards in the nation. That changed after the 2009 elections, which according to SACS brought a change of membership that “resulted in a paradigm shift in the actions of the board.”
In its report, SACS focused particular attention on the leadership style of current board chairman Khaatim Sherrer El. Last summer, El led a coup against the previous board chair, LaChandra Butler Burks, on grounds that she had failed to communicate and consult with fellow board members. SACS investigators, however, found evidence that El has been guilty of those same failings.
“Stated multiple times by various interviewees was the assessment that the chair has personally staged media events, without board approval or knowledge, and that such media events were willfully designed to promote his personal agenda,” the report found. SACS also criticized the board for apparently trying to conceal and downplay unethical behavior by one of its members, Courtney English. According to SACS, English twice had used his district-issued credit card for personal expenses.
(It’s worth noting that the board’s unwillingness to hold a fellow member accountable unfortunately mirrors the district’s approach to allegations of cheating by teachers and administrators. In both cases, the instinct has been to protect the institution, not those it was created to serve.)
The board now faces considerable oversight and pressure from a variety of sources. SACS has put the system on probation. State, federal and local officials are eying criminal prosecutions. Gov. Nathan Deal has taken a personal interest, naming two people to serve as personal liaisons to the board. The possibility of a wholesale shift of control to the mayor’s office also should help focus board members’ attention on the best interests of the children.
But as board members were no doubt reminded at their marathon meeting earlier this week, their toughest critics and most watchful observers will be the parents of students that the district is supposed to educate. That’s the way the system is designed to operate, so let’s give it a chance to work.
– Jay Bookman