by Mike Jacobs
The 2011 session of the General Assembly is finished and in the books. Shortly before adjournment, we passed Senate Bill 79 (click for information), a bill that among other things will reduce the size of the DeKalb County Board of Education from nine to seven members. Governor Deal signed SB 79 into law a couple of weeks ago.
The provision of SB 79 that shrinks the DeKalb school board was taken from House Bill 63 (click for information), legislation that I authored earlier this year. It downsizes the school board by eliminating the two “super districts” that each cover half the county, leaving seven single-member districts of equal population.
In addition to yours truly, Senators Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody) and Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur) and Representatives Tom Taylor (R-Dunwoody) and Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur) were instrumental in seeing to the passage of this important legislation. Despite the fact that just about every other DeKalb County legislator refused to see past the purely political arguments that were made against SB 79, this bipartisan group of five legislators worked together to take a major step forward for the DeKalb County School System.
In 2001, the DeKalb County Board of Education saw its membership increase from seven to nine seats. The current size of the school board is a major impediment to its operating at a high standard. This is why the passage of SB 79 was crucial.
Experts agree that smaller school boards provide higher quality governance than larger boards. The Commission for School Board Excellence, a group of leaders that wrote Georgia’s school board ethics law, has recommended that boards consist of no more than seven members. Georgia law already provides that school boards may have no more than seven members, but unfortunately school systems like DeKalb were grandfathered into this 2010 enactment.
DeKalb County, Clayton County, and the Atlanta Public Schools are the only districts in Metro Atlanta that do not meet this standard. Of the latter two districts, Clayton lost its accreditation in 2008 over alleged corruption among board members, and APS has been placed on probation by the accrediting agency known as Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). SACS is in the process of reviewing school board governance in DeKalb County as well.
Mark Elgart, the president and CEO of SACS, recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “all of the problems in these systems are about board governance, power struggles, and unethical behavior – not teachers or lack of funding.”
Reducing the size of our school board can help eliminate these problems. “As you increase the number of actors that are on the board, you sometimes end up with an inability to act in conformance with anybody’s set of standards,” former State School Superintendent Brad Bryant, who hails from DeKalb County, told the AJC.
The Georgia School Boards Association (GSBA) regularly selects Georgia’s best school boards as “Distinguished Boards of Education” after a review of their performance and organizational structure. More than 90 percent of the boards chosen for 2008 through 2010 have only five members, according to GSBA’s website.
The Gwinnett County School System has the largest student enrollment in Georgia. It also has an award-winning board of education with only five members – two less than SB 79 will require for DeKalb County and four less than comprise DeKalb’s current board.
Of the four largest school districts in the state (Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett), DeKalb is the only one with a board of more than seven members.
My hope was that this necessary change could be made through local legislation, approved by a majority of the 19 representatives and 7 senators from DeKalb County working together to do what is right for our school system and our children.
In this regard, Representative Mary Margaret Oliver had proposed House Bill 22 (click for information), local legislation that could have addressed this issue from a local perspective. I supported HB 22 throughout this year’s legislative session and hoped for its passage, but watched with dismay as certain school board members and their friends in the legislature worked to ensure its defeat.
Within the past two years, our school system has seen the indictment of its superintendent and has spent millions of tax dollars in attorney’s fees for lawsuits against construction contractors.
Reducing the DeKalb school board to seven members is a necessary first step toward a better-run school system. I am pleased that we were able to overcome purely political obstacles in order to make it happen.