“Though the public has an interest in its elected officials being able to serve in the offices to which they’ve been elected, there is an even greater public interest at stake here. The interest of the public in a healthy school system outweighs the interests of the board members in serving in their positions.”
Those two simple sentences, written by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Story in his ruling Monday, capture the essence of the controversy surrounding the DeKalb County School Board.
Students are more important than politicians. Not exactly rocket science, right? Yet too many members of the school board lost sight of that fact, assuming a degree of inflated self-importance that made an already difficult district impossible to govern. The fact that those members — most prominent among them Eugene Walker — continue to operate under the delusion of their own ego, even after reminders to the contrary by the state Board of Education, the governor, the DeKalb public and now a federal judge, speaks volumes.
In the wake of Monday’s ruling, the six members of the board suspended by Gov. Nathan Deal should resign, in the interest of those they supposedly serve.
Unfortunately, Walker and other board members have been encouraged in their obstinance by others who have lost track of priorities. Last week, leaders of the Georgia and DeKalb County chapters of the NAACP stood on the steps of the Capitol to condemn the governor for daring to intervene on behalf of DeKalb’s students, and went on to suggest that his actions were motivated by racism.
It is hard to understand the misplaced priorities that drive such statements, and hard to ignore the damage they can do in such a sensitive situation. Yes, racism does still exist, and it does still affect governmental policy and action, from health care to education to transportation. But crying racism as a political tactic, with no evidence that it is playing a role, cheapens the problem. It also ends up encouraging the very attitude that it supposedly condemns.
One important manifestation of racism is apathy — the malign neglect of struggling minority communities by a majority that cannot be bothered to care. If racism was the governor’s motivation, the easy thing to have done was absolutely nothing. Deal and the state Board of Education could have washed their hands of the problem and allowed events to take their course. And we all know what that course would have been:
Hamstrung by its board, the district would be stripped of its accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which had already put it on probation. Loss of accreditation would in turn have devalued property throughout the county, and more importantly it would devalue the diplomas of DeKalb graduates.
The crisis would snowball from there. With accreditation lost, the competition and distrust between communities within the district would explode. Political clamor would grow for private alternatives to the public-school model. Armed with a major crisis in the state’s third-largest school system, a conservative Republican such as Deal could have used the opportunity to open the doors further to vouchers and private charter schools.
Instead, he chose to intervene and accept a degree of ownership in the problem. For that, he is rewarded by so-called community leaders with suggestions of racism?
It’s important to note that other black elected leaders, including House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, a Democrat and a DeKalb resident, have stood in public support of Deal’s decision. Like the governor, they have nothing to gain politically by such a step, and in fact take a risk by reaching across partisan and racial lines on such a potentially emotional issue. But they too recognize that the education of schoolchildren must take precedence.
The NAACP leaders, on the other hand, show little sign of being motivated by such concerns. Their interest was much more narrow: trying to save the positions of the six board members, five of them black, who had been suspended by the governor. Despite the noble history of their organization, they have acted as if the “P” in NAACP stood for “politicians.”
It stands for “people”.
— Jay Bookman