By Tom Doolittle
The DeKalb County School System has had a tough year—certainly with its administration in the media. Regional print journals and television news have covered Superintendent Crawford Lewis’ under-market surplus car purchase, bullied student Jaheem Harrera’s suicide and $400,000 investigation payment to a former judge, a state-level review of scholastic testing fraud, the condition of Cross Keys High School, school board member Eugene Walker’s influence in a tax abatement case and recently and a GBI investigation involving a high level school administrative official (Pat Pope) in charge of over $200 million in SPLOST 1 and 2 capital projects. These issues all have at least one thing in common: they involve expenses and effort having little to do with educating students.
At least two of these matters, the Pope and Walker cases are related to a question of undue influence stemming from conflicts of interest. In turn, relating to employee hiring ethics, the DeKalb School Watch blog has highlighted the names of nearly a dozen highly paid school administrative executives who have family members in positions to have influenced their being hired. The blog has also pulled the number of administrative positions that pay over $100,000 a year from state Department of Education records, some for non-teaching positions initiated this year as tax revenues have plummeted.
All of these issues might at least partly explain why Georgia House Representative Kevin Levitas (D-Northlake/Tucker) has authored "The DeKalb School Board Transparency Act" which among other things would regulate conflicts of interest among school board members and DCSS employees. When asked about the process for the local legislation’s passage, Levitas e-mailed, “I think that we need to pass this bill as quickly as possible… to install a much-needed check in the system...”
The school system has no specific ethics code while the county government’s rules, legislated and passed by public referendum in 1990, do not apply to DCSS. After Levitas made his state legislative proposal public, the school board proposed its own ethics code. A vote to implement the DCSS policy was deferred at the last open school board meeting, to the dismay of at least one member, District 4’s Paul Womack. Womack said, “Either the board passes policy that is strong or stronger (than Levitas’ bill) or I will actively support his proposal.” With regard to the school board’s failure to vote last week, Womack mused, “It’s a mystery to me why anyone would oppose it.” Board members Walker, Roberts, Redovian, Copeland-Wood and Cunningham voted to defer the item.
Levitas e-mailed that he had not seen the school board’s rules draft, so he had no comment about it. The legislative bill, as currently crafted is ten (10) pages versus a three-page DCSS draft “policy”. One fundamental difference is that Levitas’ 10-page bill governs employees as well as school board members, in fundamentally stark contrast to the school board proposal which in part, seeks specifically to stay out of the administration’s business. Levitas stated, “I think it is important that neither DCSS employees and administrators nor elected officials have a conflict (potential or actual) regarding their exercise of their respective duties.” Regarding employees, many of Lavitas’ stipulations would have an impact on cases such as the highly-publicized Pat Pope investigation. For example, employees could not, “Engage in or accept private employment … for private interests when such employment or service is incompatible with the proper discharge of such person's official duties or would tend to impair his or her independence of judgment or action in the performance of his or her official duties.”
Not all prohibitions in Levitas’ legislation would necessarily be judged by an ethics commission. For most “business” conflicts, the law’s emphasis is on “transparency” or disclosure, stating, “Any board member who has a financial interest in any contract or matter pending before the board shall disclose such interest (in board records).” A board member’s or employee’s business or familial relationship, sometimes framed as “cronyism” and “nepotism”, is then advertised to the public, and subjected to discussion in a school board meeting after a 45-day public review period. In essence, if undue influence is deemed to exist by the school board, a contract or purchase is killed and punishment or sanction is not at issue—there is no role for an ethics body in such cases.
However, one type of conflict of interest is directly prohibited by Levitas, without any involvement by school board or ethics commission. In what the state representative termed as an “inherent” conflict at a recent public forum at Henderson Middle School, school board members would be prohibited from holding other public appointments or elective offices. If the regulation had already been in place when he was elected to the school board this year, Dr. Eugene Walker would have been forced to resign a position on the DeKalb Development Authority which he had held for several years. Walker resigned by choice after a public uproar when the finance authority proposed a tax abatement for the Sembler Company’s Town Brookhaven project, an action that would have reduced school system tax revenue. Sembler and individuals associated with the company had earlier made financial contributions to Walker’s school board candidacy.
Of course, as in all appointed commissions, public satisfaction is primarily dependent on the members chosen and the public’s trust in what interest they serve. In Levitas’ bill, the DeKalb Legislative Delegation chooses the commission members. An interesting twist in the proposal is the Delegation has the option of requiring that all members be from outside of DeKalb County.
Levitas said he expects the county-wide legislative Delegation to support the proposal because, “I have had very positive feedback from people across the county and hope that they will express their support to their respective legislators.”
Tom Doolittle is a 16-year resident of the Northlake area, was a columnist for former Community Review newspaper and now distributes news to several local blogs and websites. The writer has two children who have attended Lakeside High School.