Written by a regular contributor to DeKalb School Watch
DeKalb County Schools face inherent challenges in developing and maintaining a good governance system. And, this challenge continues as we see a board, or at least certain members, seeking to reduce good governance in the guise of standardization and more control. Last December, the Board considered changes to the By-laws of the Citizens’ Advisory Committee (“CAC”), the group of citizens charged with providing public oversight of the SPLOST III program. The CAC is not given any administrative or decision-making functions but serves to try to insure there is a level of accountability. Without going into the merits or effectiveness of the CAC (we can save that for another day and there is much to discuss), the current structure provides for a degree of independence and continuity so that the CAC will, hopefully, make recommendations and comments without fear of recriminations by board members or the administration.
Paul Womack spearheaded the effort to alter the rules governing the CAC make-up, including changing the terms of members from terms equal to that of the person appointing them (i.e. 4 years) to terms of one year (or even less). Womack’s argument for making the change was that the President has the right to change his cabinet at any time. But, this is a faulty argument as the Board is not the executive of DCSS but essentially the legislature. As a legislature, it has the power to approve cabinet secretaries but not to remove them (except in extreme cases leading to impeachment). And, even this analogy is incomplete as the CAC is more akin to an independent agency for which such appointees serve fixed and substantial terms.
Board members frequently state that they “set policy” but actually understanding what that means is essential to good governance for the system. Setting policy is exactly that—establishing the broad parameters and expectations for outcomes and leaving it to the executive for execution. Creating an environment where “setting policy” is measured simply by whether there are five votes is not good governance or healthy governance. While the debate about the CAC may sound academic, it reveals a fundamental problem with DeKalb—the proper way the school system should be governed. The CAC debate is simply a microcosm of the broader challenges facing DCSS. While the Board may ultimately change the structure and make-up of the CAC or other citizen committees, it does not mean that is a good or even proper outcome.
Of course, good governance requires a capable and effective executive, an executive that leads by example and that is willing to make tough choices and suffer the consequences. Without such leadership, DCSS is likely to spiral down even further. Without an effective executive, the net effect is that the Board is far more likely to stray from its role and to interfere in the management of the system, causing a further decline in the effectiveness of the system. Think this is the opinion solely of this writer—a member of our own state school board has made the same exact point.
So, what does any of the foregoing have to do with the most recent discussions regarding citizen committees? The effort (now broadened beyond the CAC for the ostensible purpose of standardization) is really about aggregating more control to the Board in a way which runs counter to good governance. And, so the cycle will continue--the Board will seek to aggregate more power, the executive leadership will continue to weaken and the system will descend into further dysfunction. We have seen this scenario play out in Clayton County with the direst of consequences. Without good governance, and without each player understanding its role and being capable of executing it, our system, our community, and our children will suffer.