Lawmakers unconvinced by a “drunk” on the school board and a blown budget

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Lawmakers unconvinced by a “drunk” on the school board and a blown budget

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Ty Tagami
Atlanta, March 16, 2017: Sen. John Wilkinson, R-Toccoa, explains his constitutional amendment to the House Education Committee Thursday.

Someone famously said democracy is the worst form of government -- except for all the rest, and Georgia lawmakers couldn’t find anything better when they looked around on Thursday.

Voters across all of Georgia will continue to elect their school board members, after a proposed constitutional amendment to change the way local education leaders are selected was shot down during a legislative hearing.

Senate Resolution 192 would have allowed a referendum to amend the constitution so that voters in school systems could have chosen to have grand juries pick their school board members. Currently, school boards chosen by voters hire superintendents but the constitutional amendment would have allowed voters to elect their superintendent instead.

This is how it worked in most of Georgia until 1992 when a constitutional amendment mandated the current way of selecting school leaders.

The author, Sen. John Wilkinson, R-Toccoa, said it would reduce the politicization of education to have one elected school leader rather than five, the typical size of a school board.

Members of the House Education committee wondered how it would work.

Education has become increasingly technical and they asked whether it would be possible to find residents who were qualified to administer a school district, especially in smaller communities.

Wilkinson said a hiring process was no guarantee of quality, citing fiscal woes under an appointed superintendent that led to a shortened school calendar in his grandchildren’s north Georgia school district.

“My grandchildren missed 15 days of instruction at a formative time in their lives,” he told members of the House Education Committee.

Rep. Mike Glanton, D-Jonesboro, said he liked the idea of electing superintendents but said elections were no guarantee of quality, either. He cited an example in his area of someone chosen by voters: “We had a member of the board of education who had a third grade education and came to every meeting drunk,” he said, “so let’s talk a little bit about qualifications.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will again have Georgia’s largest team covering the Legislature. Get complete daily coverage during the legislative session at myAJC.com/georgialegislature.

Wilkinson assured him that elected superintendents would need to have the same educational qualifications as appointed ones. He also said school districts that chose the proposed leadership model could save money on the superintendent hiring process, which typically involves a national search and consultant fees. He added that appointed superintendents tend to turn over more frequently than elected superintendents did back when Georgia had them, so his proposal would bring stability.

The other part of his proposal was the most troubling for the House members. Several said they didn’t like the idea of having a grand jury appoint school board members.

Glanton said it would give district attorneys influence over the school board selections, since they work closely with grand juries on criminal cases. And Rep. Brenda Lopez, D-Norcross, a lawyer, worried grand juries would lack diversity.

Wilkinson responded that grand juries are at least as diverse as the electorate since their members are chosen from the pool of registered voters.

In the end, he was unconvincing. The committee voted 17-1 against his resolution, which had passed the Senate floor by more than the two-thirds vote necessary for constitutional amendments.

It was an unusual rebuke. Often, committees table bills rather than outright rejecting them, but this vote was on a rare “do not pass” motion by Rep. Howard Maxwell, R-Dallas, who said the grand jury part “really really bothers me.” 

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