School boards defy Gov. Nathan Deal on state schools takeover

The Cherokee County school board joined a nascent rebellion against Gov. Nathan Deal’s plan to take over “failing” schools across the state, and more boards may stand beside them this week.

About a half dozen of Georgia’s 180 school districts have challenged the Republican leader’s proposed constitutional amendment for the Opportunity School District, as it is called, and at least two more will vote Tuesday.

The Cherokee board, in a GOP stronghold of the state, voted 7-0 Thursday for a symbolic resolution that says the proposed statewide district, with a superintendent answering only to the governor, would erode local control over education and tax dollars.

» MAP: See which Georgia schools could face state takeover

The constitutional amendment would have to be ratified by voters on the Nov. 8 ballot, and the fight for voters’ hearts and minds, which is making a mess of traditional partisan lines, is beginning. Both Deal and teachers groups have been raising money for the political campaign. The governor, who has made an overhaul of education a top issue, spent a good deal of political capital to get the two-thirds vote from the General Assembly required to put this constitutional amendment before voters. The stakes are high: a governor’s legacy, the long-held convention that education should be mostly a local responsibility, teachers’ jobs and, most importantly, children’s educations.

The constitutional amendment would allow a superintendent appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate to take control of schools deemed to be failing and shut them down, or run them with or without the local school boards’ involvement, or convert them to a charter school under independent management. Teachers could be removed and then laid off by their school districts. Schools are targeted for takeover based on their scores on the College and Career Ready Performance Index, a kind of school report card authored by the Georgia Department of Education.

In metro Atlanta, DeKalb County has 28 schools subject to takeover, Atlanta has 22 and Fulton County has 10. The districts have embarked on programs to turn around low-performing schools in hopes of dodging a takeover.

None of their boards have taken a political stand like the Cherokee school board just did. DeKalb school board chairman Melvin Johnson said no school board member he’s talked to anywhere in Georgia supports the constitutional amendment. DeKalb board members have discussed a resolution against it, but haven’t yet taken a stand. “I don’t agree with it at all,” Johnson said of the constitutional amendment. “However, when we speak as a board, that’s a whole different thing.”

He didn’t want to elaborate, but the district would have much to lose by antagonizing Deal, since his pick for superintendent would have independent authority to select schools for takeover.

Unlike DeKalb or some districts that have aligned against the OSD, Cherokee has no schools subject to a state takeover even if the measure passes. School board chairwoman Kyla Cromer said the vote Thursday was partly in solidarity with affected districts and also a rejection of a statewide school district that would depend on the state’s ability to determine whether a school is failing. The proposed Opportunity School District, or OSD, relies on an oft-amended school grading formula that relies on standardized tests that also have been changing — and subject to technical glitches.

Cromer said there’s also no clear evidence that a state-run district could do a better job than locally-elected boards. “We do not agree with what it would do here in Cherokee County, if we had a school that did end up on the list,” she said.

The governor’s officer provided no comment for this article, but Cherokee’s action was answered by Tom Willis, Deal’s former legislative affairs liaison to the state house, who started Georgia Leads, an advocacy group spearheading efforts on initiatives such as the constitutional amendment.

“We are disappointed to see local boards of education around the state focus their efforts on political posturing as opposed to better serving the parents and students they represent,” he said. “If they would spend as much time and resources working to save the thousands of Georgia students trapped in failing schools as they have fighting the OSD, these reforms would not be necessary. …our children can’t wait any longer for these boards to get their act together.”

Deal has repeatedly said that some school districts have allowed children to languish in shoddy schools, which traps them in cycles of poverty and failure. “We have a moral duty to do everything we can to help these children,” he says on his website.

Rae Anne Harkness, a single mother of two in DeKalb County, agrees. There’s no way she’d send her children to the schools serving her south DeKalb neighborhood, she said. She sent them to a charter school, Ivy Prep, but was unsatisfied there and moved them to private schools that she can barely afford. She wishes the public schools supported by her tax dollars were better.

“They’ve been failing for years, especially in my area, and I don’t see anyone standing up to do anything about it,” Harkness said.

That’s not the position of the Georgia PTA, which voted 633-0 against the constitutional amendment during a June convention. Last month, the group excoriated Deal and the lawmakers who wrote the preamble to the ballot item. The parents group believes it to be misleading because it refers to fixing schools via community involvement without mentioning the state takeover. Deal’s office and OSD supporters, such as the group StudentsFirst Georgia, defended the wording as true to the amendment’s intent.

Supporters of the amendment say school boards and teachers groups have a vested interest in defending the status quo, even if it means perpetuating failure.

Some districts that have adopted anti-OSD resolutions have schools performing poorly enough to be taken over, such as Bibb, Chatham and Richmond counties. Others, including Cherokee, Fayette, Henry and Troup counties, do not.

A couple of districts with no currently “failing” schools, Clayton and Barrow counties, have anti-OSD votes scheduled for Tuesday.

“We will have that resolution and it will pass,” said Barrow school board vice chairwoman Lynn Stevens, who, like her fellow board members, is a Republican. In some cases, charter schools are managed by for-profit companies, and that rankles Stevens and other OSD critics, who note that the constitutional amendment would allow the OSD to continue to take their tax dollars for schools converted to charter management.

“This amendment is really just about privatizing education and taking money away from taxpayers and their communities and giving it to private, for-profit companies,” Stevens said.

At a recent school board meeting where the pending anti-OSD resolution was discussed, Stevens had strong words that were greeted with hoots and cheers by some in attendance: If teachers are happy in their schools, she said, according to a voice recording provided by the Barrow News-Journal, “then they need to fight this with their heart and soul, and they have the power along with the administrators to send a message to the governor to go to hell.”

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