Deal blasts critics of his plan for taking over “failing” schools

When Gov. Nathan Deal spoke to a roomful of school superintendents Thursday, he praised them for their reticence on one of his most important legislative priorities — a constitutional amendment to empower the state to take over “chronically failing” schools.

“They’ve all been pretty good,” he said. “They’ve kept their mouths shut even though they may not agree with it.”

He was less charitable with some of their bosses — school board members who have taken public stands against Amendment 1 on the Nov. 8 ballot. He accused them of allowing failure to fester in schools, in some cases for generations, entrapping mostly poor and minority children. Would those school leaders send their own children or grandchildren to a failing school, he asked.

“I can almost guarantee you their answer is going to be no.”

Pam Nutt disputes that. She was among those targeted by Deal’s ire, since she is the chairwoman of a school board that has defied his position on the constitutional amendment.

The Henry County school board adopted a symbolic resolution against Amendment 1, saying it would erode the tradition of local control over education and tax dollars and “constrain” the district’s ability to educate all children. The “Opportunity School District” to be established under the amendment could requisition local tax proceeds for the operation and maintenance of any school taken.

No Henry County schools are performing poorly enough to be taken over, but there are low-performing schools, Nutt said, and she sent her kids to them because it would have sent a bad message as a leader to cherry-pick the best schools for them.

“How dare he say that. Tell him to call me,” said Nutt, who’s been on the Henry board for a couple of decades. “It’s wrong for him to say that. Oh that just infuriates me.”

Deal used the speech at the Georgia Education Leadership Institute in Atlanta to position himself as the education governor in the final two years of his two terms in office. He said education will be a top priority, just as changes to the criminal justice system were a focus in the past.

Georgia ranks 35th on a variety of educational measures, Deal said, so while the state’s not at the bottom it has little to brag about and much work to do. Next year, he said, he will ask the Georgia General Assembly to overhaul the decades-old formula the state uses to distribute money to school districts.

He criticized district leaders for not passing along recent funding increases to teachers, in higher salaries or reduced furlough days, saying, “The General Assembly and I have lost our patience,” and that he will mandate pay raises in the upcoming budget.

But the most urgent priority is the November ballot referendum. As described in enabling legislation, the new state district would be run by a new superintendent who answers only to the governor and has the power to take over schools deemed to be failing. Those schools would either be run with or without the local school board’s involvement, converted to a charter school under independent management or shuttered.

Many voters will go to the polls knowing little about the plan, except what’s written in the referendum question, which asks if the state should be able to “intervene” to improve schools.

“I hadn’t heard about it,” said Tawana Thornton of Atlanta, whose children attended Perkerson Elementary School, which is performing poorly enough to be taken over. “Some things need to change,” she said, but not much. Her son has graduated and her daughter is in high school and, except for the way Atlanta teaches math and that big test-cheating scandal a few years back, things were generally “all right,” she said.

And then there are people such as Tonya Cummings, of Athens, who isn’t thrilled with public schools as they are but doesn’t have much confidence in the state, either.

Her kids previously attended a DeKalb County school that is eligible for takeover if the amendment passes, but Cummings, who was homeless then, had to move when her transitional housing expired. She found a job at an Athens calling center that pays $7.75 an hour, but then the state cut off her Medicaid because, she was told, her pay was too high. She blames Deal in part because she called his office and they couldn’t help her.

She said her kids were bullied in DeKalb and that little came of her complaints. “There’s too many things broken in DeKalb County,” she said. She said school discipline needs to improve, but she lacks confidence in the governor’s ability to improve things for the poor. “I don’t know if he is a Republican or a Democrat,” she said. “I just know there are a lot of poor people who could have benefited from Medicaid.”

Nutt, the Henry board chairwoman, said her superintendent opposes the Opportunity School District and told her he hasn’t met a superintendent who supports it. She said she didn’t think the governor should be thanking superintendents for keeping their criticisms to themselves. “I want to have people who are going to challenge my thinking. Why would you want yes men working for you? You’re not going to grow.”

Nutt, a rare school board member also working in a school, said she wants the governor to know that the biggest problems in the school where she works are medical. She works as a media specialist in a neighboring county elementary school with lots of diversity and transience. Children suffer from skin diseases and mental health issues, she said, which makes it difficult to teach them reading and English.

The kids are sick a lot, she wants Deal to know. “I’m not equipped to deal with this. … He just needs to come to my school.”

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