Lawmakers face election deadline for DeKalb schools

Georgia lawmakers are approaching a deadline to restructure the DeKalb County school board, with the potential for election chaos if they fail to meet it.

Candidates for the May 20 school election are supposed to start coming forward at 9 a.m. Monday, when the qualification period starts. But, so far, it’s unclear where the political lines will be drawn for the districts in which they’re supposed to run.

“We just need to know,” said H. Maxine Daniels, elections director in DeKalb. She said lawsuits by potential candidates could result from a failure to get the lines drawn in time, and that she might have to seek an injunction herself.

The row over the school voting districts reflects the role politics plays in public education and the struggle for control over institutions that consume a big chunk of taxpayer dollars. That same frustration drove legislation that sought to overturn Georgia’s constitutional prohibition on the establishment of new school systems.

The sponsor of that bill, a Republican from Dunwoody, abandoned his effort Tuesday. Rep. Tom Taylor said he couldn’t find the super majority he needed to get it past the state House, but he said he’ll try again next year, with hopes for a ballot initiative in 2016.

“We need to do something about education in Georgia,” Taylor said, adding that public schools produce an “appalling” graduation rate given the tax dollars they consume.

Taylor’s bill was aimed at DeKalb but would have affected the whole state. It would have let Dunwoody and other new cities create their own independent school systems. The Georgia constitution banned new school districts in the 1940s, initiating a period of consolidation. Student rolls — and budgets — skyrocketed in urbanizing areas, and for a time drove impressive results.

But the DeKalb system has been in decline for a decade or more, and that has led to conflict over diminishing resources. The infighting exacerbated geographic, race and class divisions and drew the attention of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which put the district on probation in 2012.

The crisis led to intervention by Gov. Nathan Deal, who replaced most of the school board. DeKalb Superintendent Michael Thurmond appealed for calm this week during a visit to the county legislative delegation. Thurmond, who was hired after probation was in place, helped convince SACS to lift it, and he asked that lawmakers avoid an ugly fight that could stir old enmities and bring SACS back.

“We just cannot allow this to occur,” Thurmond told the lawmakers. “I’m begging you.”

The fight over district lines dates back three years, to a law that required the DeKalb school board to downsize from its present nine members by 2012. The Republican-led S.B. 79 left implementation to the divided and mostly Democratic local delegation. Perhaps predictably, they were unable to agree on new lines, so lawmakers extended the deadline.

Now, with three months to go before the election and all nine seats up, they’re in a corner. A small bipartisan DeKalb coalition hopes to avoid the chaos of a botched election. They’ve devised a work-around — a statewide bill tailored for DeKalb that simply eliminates two at-large seats and leaves the remaining seven districts intact. H.B. 979 doesn’t need the support of the local delegation. It passed the House, and awaits a hearing in the Senate.

Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, agreed to carry it through the Senate. “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t pass,” said Jones, who was hoping for a vote by Wednesday.

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