Friday, January 22, 2010

A Little Bit of Hope and Good News...

Maybe there is hope for some of the BOE members. Paul Womack very publicly calls out his fellow BOE members, like Gene Walker ("There’s nothing that says I can’t serve on some other DeKalb County board, even if serving on that board would create an obvious conflict of interest"), and Zepora Roberts and former BOE member Frances Edwards ("There’s currently no rule against me using my position as a member of the school board to get a job in the school system for one of my relatives"). Remember that former BOE member Casssandra Anderson Littlejohn's business actually did some business with the school system, a clear conflict of interest, but there was nothing in writing to stop it (and Superintendent Lewis didn't have any problem with DCSS doing business with a BOE member).

It is also nice to see that he used the term "taxpayers", and mentioned the massive amount of DCSS employees (13,285), and huge operating budget ($850 million per year).

He also recognizes that DeKalb County taxpayers no longer trust the BOE and DCSS Central office ("We need to be transparent in our motivations, honest in our dealings, and accountable for our actions. These are the elements necessary to re-build public trust in our school board, our school system and government."). Great job, Paul...things may be changing!

6:24 p.m. Thursday, January 21, 2010

In the Federalist Papers, James Madison wrote that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Well, if elected officials were angels, no codes of ethics would be necessary either. But elected officials are merely people, flawed and imperfect and subject to temptation, ignorance and error, which means that they should be controlled by external rules that provide transparency, and most importantly, accountability.

The DeKalb County School Board desperately needs a set of rules governing the official behavior of its members — not because we’re bad, but because we are human beings who have taken on an awesome responsibility.

Imagine a private company with an annual budget of more than $850 million, more than 102,000 customers, and 13,285 employees — without a clear set of rules governing its directors. Give that company the ability to levy taxes and condemn property, and you have the DeKalb school board. That’s too much power without the checks or balances that taxpayers expect and deserve.

There’s currently no rule against me using my position as a member of the school board to get a job in the school system for one of my relatives. There’s nothing that says I can’t serve on some other DeKalb County board, even if serving on that board would create an obvious conflict of interest. There’s no oversight board, official watchdog or ombudsman watching over me (or any of the other board members); no clear set of rules we could turn to if I had an ethical question. And were I to do something that was obviously wrong, there’s no mechanism to punish me, remove me from office, or undo any damage I might have done to the school system. This lack of guidance is not some mere loophole in the law — there’s no law to even put a loophole in!

Today, school board members are guided only by their own instincts. And since we’re all only human, we are subject to both honest mistakes and errors of opportunity. That’s no way to run any government. Yet when presented with an opportunity to take a single, tiny step to protect taxpayers and students from potentially unethical actions by board members, a majority of my colleagues recently voted to table the discussion. I can’t think of a good reason why any elected official would vote against ethical standards — but I can think of a few bad ones.

If the school board is not willing to create a common-sense code of ethics for itself, we may just find the state Legislature will do it for us. State Rep. Kevin Levitas (D-Atlanta) has pre-filed the DeKalb School Board Transparency Act, which would give our board a clear set of principles to follow. Among them would be disclosure requirements, prohibitions on accepting gifts or money, and most importantly, consequences for violating the rules. Levitas has good intentions, and a pretty good bill that’s worthy of public support. It would be a shame if the DeKalb school board were unable to govern ourselves and adopt a strong set of ethics guidelines. But whether from the state or ourselves, we need an ethics code.

Voters and taxpayers understand that we don’t live in a perfect world, and that neither humans nor elected officials are “angels.” They did not elect us to be perfect. They elected us to do the best job we can in making sure that every child in DeKalb County has an education that will allow them to compete in the 21st century. They expect us to be honest with them while we do that. We need to be transparent in our motivations, honest in our dealings, and accountable for our actions. These are the elements necessary to re-build public trust in our school board, our school system and government.

Paul Womack is a member of the DeKalb County School Board.


Paula Caldarella said...

Isn't this the same Paul Womack who just said Crawford Lewis was doing an outstanding job and deserved his raise?

Anonymous said...

Yes, it was. He was very, very wrong on Lewis, but it is nice to see him admit that the ethics of the BOE has to change dramatically. One thing we know for sure is that Womack and Gene Walker and Zepora Roberts won't be hanging out together on their spare time. Wow did he go after them in the AJC.

Cerebration said...

"They elected us to do the best job we can in making sure that every child in DeKalb County has an education that will allow them to compete in the 21st century."

Here! Here! Sadly, that's not what they are doing.

As far as the Lewis thing goes - I'm not so sure he was given a raise (which in reality was only $15k, far less than Lewis had hoped for to increase his pension check) in order to simply keep him in his chair for the upcoming Heery trial.

This trial is really big people. This trial and it's associated attorney's fees are usurping all extra resources and attention away from the task at hand as outlined by Womack.

It's a big mess. It's going to take some time - and some very serious transparency to work it out. I have a feeling the DA is going to get the ball moving pretty soon. Our school system can't sit around in limbo like this much longer.

Anonymous said...

Is anyone else bothered by the fact that DeKalb Schools employs 13,285 people, and only 7,500 of them are teachers. That's over 5,700 people to support 7,500 teachers.

Why can't we adequately fund the classroom (which is where ALL of the learning takes place), and then use what's left for support?

No system needs 5,700 people to support 7,500 employees. We need a new business model.

Does every school system have 42% of its personnel in support positions? No wonder we have falling down schools, kids crammed like sardines into classrooms, and little access to science equipment and technology.

Anonymous said...

Very good observation by Cerebration with respect to possibe reasoning behind the salary increase for Dr. Lewis. Someone also mentioned his contract was changed to provide only 4 months severance if he was relieved of his duties. Anyone else hear that?

When you consider the AJC is attempting to discredit Pat Pope with their articles, one has to wonder if Heery Mitchell is hoping for a change of venue. Think about it, based on the publicity generated about the key witnesses for the school system, can a judge find 12 impartial jurors in the county?

Yes, this trial is really big! March can't get here soon enough.

Cerebration said...

At any rate, this is a well-written letter. I hope Womack is able to move the ideas he expresses in it forward. But - he's going to need help - so pay attention to the election this fall. We have the opportunity to replace 5 members of the board!

These people's terms end in 2010 -- think of a candidate we can support with a high level of integrity and a can-do work ethic.

Zepora Roberts (District 7)
Jim Redovian (District 1)
Sarah Copeland-Wood (District 3)
Jay Cunningham (District 5)
Eugene Walker (Super District 9)

As Ella said, this is not an easy job. And turning this ship around from where it is currently docked will be an extraordinary task.

Ella Smith said...

There has got to be something done about ethic and the School Board.

This is a nice letter.

However, something also has to be done about the climate of the Dekalb County School System and giving a pay raise to the Super did not help. Ethic is one of the problems in the Dekalb County School System. Much attention needs to be placed on the climate of the schools and the education of our children. Ethics is important but secondary to me.

Dekalb County School Systems Top Priority is to teach our childrena and our most important factor in doing this is highly qualified teachers. Right next to this is keeping our children safe and secure. Then after this we can worry after ethics and all the other things that are important but just not as important.

fedupindcss said...

Nice op-ed by Womack, but actions speak louder than words. When he starts to vote in a way that assures me his isn't in Lewis's pocket (and when he stops insulting teachers by saying they are easily replaced), I will be impressed.

Anonymous said...

Cere: This blog is a great venue to vent frustrations.

Unfortunately at the end-of-the-day DCSS Administration really has never taken ANY of the input to heed. While they continously request "public input" their decisions have always been preconceived. They don't give a crap about public input -- just watch it on TV24 during the board meeting broadcasts. Sometimes the district's recommendations coincidentally match with public opinion, sometimes they don't. Regardless, the Super and BOE do what they planned to do in the first place. Every time.

Personally I'm sick and tired of being played. I've invested tons of time, opinion, and sacrifice in trying to better things only to hit a wall. I'm done. Best wishes to you bloggers. You need to find a Superintendent, Board, or medium that can better help you achieve your objectives.

Ella Smith said...

"I've invested tons of time, opinion, and sacrifice in trying to better things only to hit a wall."

This is understandable. That is why I got involved in politics. I knew that was the only way to truely make a difference.

I also had tried to voice concerns actually from the inside. This get you nowhere as you are only a teacher and teachers really do not have a voice as an individual or as a group as seen by the recent raise given to the super.

Cerebration said...

We fully intend to work ourselves to the bone to identify 5 new board members to replace the 5 whose terms expire this fall. I'm sorry that you have given up hope, Anon. I haven't yet. I won't go down without a fight - screaming and kicking!

Stick with it people - we really do have a chance to breathe new life and perspective into the board this fall. We do have some quality people there already - we just need to find 5 more to add so that they can move forward with a like-minded, simple agenda - providing the best education possible for our children using time-tested, proven methodologies and by providing well-paid, respected quality teachers, state of the art technology and healthy learning environments.


Ella Smith said...

I think this is the right thing to do Celeb. I also am sorry someone is giving up hope. We need to get together and all have coffee.

Everyone just at least have a cup of coffee and think positive. I have run for school board twice and lost twice. However, I did well the second time I ran in the general election.

With the Supreme Courts decision of the overturned 20-year precedent saying that, corporations could not pay for campaign ads from their general treasuries. The Supreme Court also struck down a law indicating corporations could not buy “issue ad” ---which only thinly veil support for or opposition to specific candidates in the closing days of campaigns.

What may the results be? Will it affect the school board elections?

According to President Obama, “The corporations can unleash muti-million-dollar ad barrages against candidates who try to curb special interest power, or devote millions to propping up elected officials who back their schemes.” What will happen on our school board front? Will candidates get ads run by corporations who want to buy school property at a good price? Will candidates get ads run by companies who want to do business with the school system? Let us talk about ethics and talk about how this law may influence our school board races.

Bottom Line said...

Paul Womack voted to (1) give Crawford Lewis a raise and (2) extend Crawford Lewis's contract as Superintendent of DCSS.

There is NO excusing this. NONE.

Paul Womack's vote to keep Lewis and give him a raise were wrong. There is no defending it.

Shayna said...

I applaud the effort to get some real ethics guidelines to the school board. I really believe that there needs to be policies written into place that are binding now and for ever after (which may not be the case if it is passed by the BoE rather than the legislature). There are several reasons that I believe these provisions, such as anti-nepotism, are necessary --first and foremost being that the taxpayers are entitled to the most qualified applicants being hired in each position. There could be a way around the policy if someone is actually the most qualified but such relationships make for many issues going forward. The current system isn't in the best interest of taxpayers or the children, who should be first and foremost in consideration in how we run things. It's a tough battle on the BOE because the system has been in place a long time and it take 5 votes to change anything.

Anonymous said...

Shayna was former head of the Atlanta bar and would have made for a great BOE member, and would have helped get the BOE to pass ethics reform. It is amazing to me that there is such rampant nepotism. This is 2010 and DCSS is one of the largest school systems in the Southeast. It needs to be run like a legtimate business, not a family picnic.
DCSS employment is still about who you know, not how good are you at your job and what prior experience you have.

Marcus Turk was hired because he is related to a former administrator, and now is in charge of the finances of a billion dollar enterprise. What is it going to take to get a Board of Education that leads and hold administration accountable. No more nepotism, no more waste, no more bloat.