Lawmakers shrink DeKalb school board

After stalling for years, Georgia lawmakers finally voted Wednesday to eliminate two school board seats in DeKalb County, possibly inviting racial discord at a time when the district’s accreditation hangs in the balance.

The Senate approved House Bill 979 with minor changes that were quickly ratified by the House. The bill reduces the school board to seven members from nine by eliminating the two at-large seats. Those seats are among the six held by black board members and are the only two selected by all voters in the largely Democratic and largely black county.

Superintendent Michael Thurmond implored lawmakers to delay the downsizing, citing concern about a flare-up of the antagonisms that led an accreditation agency to put the district on probation. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools recently lifted probation but warned that the district had a long way to go for full accreditation. A group of senators, including Steve Henson, D-Tucker, backed an amendment that would have kept the board intact another two years, but it was handily defeated.

“I think it’s somewhat divisive,” Henson said after the Senate vote. “This map just did away with those two seats that were represented by minorities without letting us redraw the map to represent the community.”

Proponents of a smaller board responded that they had no choice, with just days until the deadline to register candidates for the May 20 board election. The Republican-controlled General Assembly had mandated a smaller board three years ago but left it to local lawmakers to figure out how to redraw the electoral map.

The House delegation couldn’t reach a consensus. Last week, they mustered — barely — enough signatures to approve a map, but it generated little enthusiasm in the Senate. It proposed one largely-white board district in and around the Republican stronghold of Dunwoody in far north DeKalb, and six largely black districts that stretched north like fingers from the southern county line.

Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, a sponsor of the bipartisan bill approved Wednesday, said it was an “ugly” map that split neighborhoods and schools between multiple board districts. He said he got together with a handful of Democrats who agreed it was expedient to remove the at-large seats because that accomplished the downsizing without moving any lines on the map. The county elections chief had said she wouldn’t have time to notify all voters about their new districts, as required by law, if the lines shifted much.

Jacobs said it’s better to have fewer board members because it means “fewer agendas at work.”

Thad Mayfield, whose school board seat will be eliminated if Gov. Nathan Deal signs the bill into law as expected, said he assumed all along that this would happen. He doubted it would prove controversial.

“The change from nine to seven was imminent in the minds of most people, and I would think if there were some concerns about that in the south end of the county I would have heard it,” he said. “And I haven’t heard anything.”

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