Legislature Empowers Governor to Replace APS Board Members

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(APN) ATLANTA — Earlier today, on the last day of the 2011 legislative session, Thursday, April 14, 2011, the State Senate approved, on a vote of 34-12, a version of SB 79 which was substituted by the House on Monday, April 11.

The legislation, which is expected to be signed by Governor Nathan Deal, would give the governor the authority to replace Board of Education Members at Atlanta Public Schools.  The bill must also be pre-cleared by the US Department of Justice.

While the governor already has power to replace school board members in many districts across the State, the APS members were grandfathered in because they were elected in November 2009, whereas an existing law previously took effect for members who were elected after July 2010.

The new section of the law states: “If a local school system or school has been placed on, as of the effective date of this paragraph, the level of accreditation immediately preceding loss of accreditation for school board governance related reasons by one or more accrediting agencies… and does not reattain full accreditation status by July 1, 2011, the State Board of Education shall conduct a hearing in not less than ten days nor more than 30 days and recommend to the Governor whether to suspend all members of the local board of education with pay.”

The law continues: “If the State Board of Education makes such recommendation, the Governor may, in his or her discretion, suspend all members of the local board of education with pay and, in consultation with the State Board of Education, appoint temporary replacement members who shall be otherwise qualified to serve as members of such board.”

It is not immediately clear whether the State Board could recommend, or whether the Governor could choose, to remove certain Board Members but not others.  The State Board is empowered to determine whether to recommend to “suspend all members.”  While “all” may include “some,” others might argue that if the legislature intended for “all or some” they would have written the law that way.

Board Members currently having ethics investigations include Khaatim El, Yolanda Johnson, Courtney English, and Nancy Meister.  Step Up or Step Down has also called on El to resign as chair due to allegedly flipping another Board Member “the bird” during Executive Session.

The law does not state by what criteria the State Board would recommend, or the Governor would choose, to remove Board Members.

The law also does not state how the governor would select temporary replacement members, except to say that they must be qualified to serve on the Board.

The removed members would then have the opportunity to appeal the decision.  If they do not appeal the decision within the time period between thirty and sixty days after their removal, then the temporary replacement would become a permanent replacement until the next General Election or the end of the replaced member’s term, whichever is sooner.

In the case of Atlanta, the next General Election will likely be in 2012, whereas the next APS BOE elections would not be until 2013.

If the removed member were to appeal a decision, an administrative hearing would be held to determine whether the reinstatement of the member would likely be beneficial or harmful to the school system retaining or re-attaining accreditation.  If the appeal was successful, they would be reinstated; if not, the temporary replacement would become permanent until the next General Election or end of term.

The law, therefore, introduces several possible scenarios which could each be problematic.

For example, if the Governor does appoint temporary board members, it would introduce significant instability to the board, exactly during the time it is supposed to work towards reattaining full accreditation and selecting a new Superintendent.  This stability could only increase as the removed board members engaged the appeals process, which could take several months.

While a whole new set of Board Members could be elected by the voters in 2012–one full year earlier than otherwise would have occurred–the law would essentially strip the voters of their ability to select BOE representatives up until that time.

And, if Deal selects a team of temporary Board Members who, for example, share an anti-public schools, pro-privatization agenda, then a lot of damage to the integrity of Atlanta’s public governance model could be done in just one year.

SB 79 would also reduce the number of members in the school board in Dekalb County from nine to seven.

Dekalb County’s BOE is not specifically mentioned in the legislation.  However, when the bill references “counties in which there is being collected a homestead option sales and use tax… and a county sales and use tax for educational purposes… and the county board of education consists of more than seven members,” only Dekalb County applies, State Rep. Dee Dawkins-Haigler told Atlanta Progressive News in a phone interview.

SB 79 was originally introduced by State Sens. Buddy Carter, William Ligon, and Jesse Stone.  It was sponsored in the Georgia House by State Rep. Ed Lindsey (R-Buckhead), a strong supporter of school privatization and charter schools.

The original bill dealt with the length of terms of school board members, requiring that the minimum amount of years for any BOE Members’ terms should be four years.

However, the State House added language dealing with APS and Dekalb County Schools after SB 79 initially passed the State Senate on near-party lines on March 10, 2011, 32-22.

A substitute version passed the State House on April 11, 109-62, with a handful of Democrats joining Republicans in supporting passage.

Democrats voting yea included State Reps. Kathy Ashe, Ralph Long, and Mary Margaret Oliver.  Earlier in the Session, Long had introduced his own proposal to appoint members to the APS BOE.

Those voting nay included State Reps. Roberta Abdul-Salaam, Stacey Abrams, Sharon Beasley-Teague, Stephanie Benfield, Tyrone Brooks, Dee Dawkins-Haigler, Karla Drenner, Stacey Evans, Pat Gardner, Michele Henson, Scott Holcomb, Margaret Kaiser, Darshun Kendrick, Pedro Marin, Alisha Thomas Morgan, Sandra Scott, Pam Stephenson, and Gloria Tinubu.

“The process was not handled properly.  It circumvented the local delegation process and took it straight to the General Assembly.  The minority in this case, which was two Republicans, wanted to overrule the majority, which in this case is primarily Democratic,” State Rep. Dawkins-Haigler (D-Lithonia) told APN.

The Board takeover language of the bill “disenfranchises people who elect people.  It is not the job of the governor to remove people from office unless there is malfeasance.  Not just because some people are bickering,” she said, apparently referring to Atlanta’s school system.

As for the reduction in size of Dekalb’s BOE, “There’s no empirical data showing that a smaller school board would be better.  We’ve found studies that show the opposite.  Larger school boards give larger representation to the people,” she said.

“I just feel very strongly about the fact that we haven’t had input from our constituents,” Rep. Michele Henson (D-Stone Mountain) said in an interview.

“This should be a local bill.  I’m a very strong advocate of local legislation, things that should be dealt with the local delegation.  We got away from local legislation with the bill for Sandy Springs cityhood, but at least there was a vote there by the people,” Henson said.

Three State Senators–Vincent Fort, Donzella James, and Horacena Tate–held a press conference on Thursday, April 07, to announce their intention to file a lawsuit challenging the legality of SB 79 if it passes.

They raised concerns in particular about the changes involving APS, and questioned whether the bill would amount to Black vote dillution in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.

APS has an interim report due to AdvancED/SACS CASI, the accrediting agency, in May 2011; and a final report due in September.  The Board has made progress in several of the recommendations made by AdvancED when it placed APS on probation in January 2011, but it is not clear whether it will be enough for the system to return to full accreditation status.

Advocates of the APS language in SB 79, such as State Rep. Ashe, called it a lifeline to be used in the case of last resort, while Gov. Deal told reporters this week he could see the benefit of having another tool in the toolbox.

(END / 2011)

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