Two rules of good governance:
Rule No. 1) It is never a good idea to let unelected people sit in judgment of and even remove officials who have been put into public office by the vote of the people. The practice contradicts the entire concept of self-government and undermines accountability. If voters elect bad officials, they ought to live with the consequences of doing so.
Rule No. 2) In case of a true emergency, Rule No. 1 can and must be broken.
The DeKalb County School Board is the perfect case study of why Rule No. 2 exists. The board and the district that it is supposed to oversee are not merely dysfunctional; they have been dysfunctional for years. Superintendents have come and gone, often walking away with nice payoffs and in one case with a corruption indictment. Studies and audits have been authorized, conducted and then buried. Pledges have been made that this time, things will finally change, and time and again the change has been for the worse.
Millions of dollars in taxpayer money have been wasted. Precious years have been wasted. More important, tens of thousands of students have passed through a school system that did not treat their education as its top priority. There is too little sign that is changing.
Quite the contrary. Since December, when the DeKalb school system was notified that its repeated misbehavior had put its accreditation in danger, board members have made it more clear than ever that their top priority is maintaining their own power and authority. They have hired outside legal counsel, at considerable taxpayer expense, to protect their own jobs. They have filed state and federal lawsuits, again at considerable expense, challenging the state’s right to remove them.
Had they shown similar initiative and energy in fixing the district’s problems, they would not find themselves in this situation.
In another step to deflect criticism, the board has hired former state legislator and labor commissioner Michael Thurmond to serve as its interim superintendent. Thurmond is a good man and is generally well respected by both Republicans and Democrats. By nature and experience, he is well-suited to bridge the geographic, racial and economic divides that make DeKalb such a complicated place to govern.
In a marathon meeting of the state Board of Education on Thursday, Thurmond committed himself to changing the district’s direction and leadership.
“This is the job of a lifetime,” he said to the state board, telling them that he would not have been lured out of his private law practice by anything less than than the opportunity to solve a major crisis.
Thurmond also vouched strongly for the current DeKalb board’s willingness to help him. The problem is, as an employee of the DeKalb board, he cannot fix the board. His own competence, reputation and experience have no real relevance to the board’s fate. Furthermore, it is unfair and inappropriate for the board to use Thurmond as a mouthpiece to plead publicly on their behalf. His job as interim superintendent is to improve the education being offered to DeKalb students, not to preserve the jobs of the board members who hired him.
Last night, the state board voted unanimously to recommend removal of most of the DeKalb board. Sadly, the district’s issues are too profound to be solved by that step alone. But if Gov. Nathan Deal ends up following that recommendation, and if the courts decide that he has the authority to do so, progress can begin.
– Jay Bookman