Lawmakers in DeKalb feud over school-board map

State lawmakers, convinced a smaller school board is more efficient, have ordered the nine-member DeKalb County board to shrink to seven members or less.

Experts say there is no clear evidence that smaller school boards are better, and some parents question whether there are more important things for lawmakers to consider. Nonetheless, members of DeKalb's delegation to the state House are expected to try their hands at cartography again today after a failed, and some say embarrassing, attempt to re-draw the political lines for school board posts last week.

Lawmakers seeking to shrink the board are attempting to fix what has become a familiar problem in metro Atlanta: a school board that has been told by a national accrediting agency that its in-fighting has made it dysfunctional. DeKalb recently escaped sanctions. Boards in Clayton County and Atlanta have faced similar penalties in recent years.

Facing a deadline imposed by leaders of the General Assembly, the DeKalb's representatives in the Gold Dome must somehow compromise on a new map, despite divisions by race, geography and party.

The prize over which they fight: control over the second-largest employer in DeKalb, a school system with 15,000 employees, an annual operations budget of $775 million and a sales tax that is expected to generate $475 million for construction projects over the next five years.

John Oselette, the father of an elementary school student in the Northlake area, said political factions are vying to control those taxpayer dollars. He lives on the county's north side and worked on the campaign of a North DeKalb school board member. "People underestimate the power of these elected officials," he said. "What this is about is who controls the money and the purse strings in the county."

The map scuffle was caused by a state law last year that orders the DeKalb school board to shrink from the current nine seats to, at most, seven. The law offered no direction on how to get there, and county delegates are fighting over the steering wheel.

"I think we’re in a ditch right now," said Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Druid Hills, after she and her fellow delegates in the state House failed to settle on a map last week.

Race and politics

DeKalb is a majority minority county, with African-Americans making up just over half the county's population. Six of the nine school board seats are held by black members.

Senate Bill 79, passed last year, angered local Democrats, who are mostly black. It's because the Republican-dominated General Assembly, which is mostly white, tailored it to fit DeKalb without consulting the local majority. Typically, measures that dictate local changes are supposed to be approved by the local delegations.

DeKalb House members who favor a smaller board blame their disunion on school board members who refused to recommend a plan to shrink board size. But Board Chairman Eugene Walker said it was lawmakers who caused the mess.

"We didn’t ask for the change in our districts," said Walker, who lives in South DeKalb. He said he'd seen no evidence that smaller boards are better.

His colleague Nancy Jester, a board member from North DeKalb, has made the same point. She said S.B. 79 tore open a "Pandora’s Box" that might release any outcome. She worries lawmakers will draw a map that severs high schools from their feeder schools while distancing parents from their school board members.

Last year's law was inspired by a 2010 law that said a seven-member school board is the largest acceptable size. It mandated that any local law changing school board size result in a board no larger than seven.

Jim Puckett, a school board development specialist with the Georgia School Boards Association, said the 2010 law was driven by business groups and that he knew of no research demonstrating that smaller is better. "I doubt very seriously if seven is a magic number, or five or nine or 20," he said.

Jester said proponents of downsizing noted that Atlanta and Clayton County, both troubled school boards, had nine members. But she said that was anecdotal and insufficient evidence.

Like DeKalb, those two school systems ran afoul of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools after bickering on their boards.

Mark Elgart, the president and chief executive officer of SACS, said people should not hold such a small sampling as representative of the nature of things.

"I know boards up to 15 to 17 people that work well," Elgart said. "And I know boards that are five people that are horrendous."

Does size matter?

Stephen Nesmith, a father in South DeKalb, said there are more important issues for political leaders to concern themselves with than the size of the school board.

Number one for him: "The quality of education, especially on the south end of the county."

Laura Stokes, the mother of a high school student in South DeKalb, said her big concern these days is whether an auditorium gets built at Southwest DeKalb High School, where her son plays percussion. The sound in the gym is terrible, she said.

School board representation matters, but reducing the size of the school board is not a priority for her and may not be a good thing. "I think it depends on the group of people," she said. Sometimes less people can be more effective, and sometimes more."

The controversy has left on-lookers bewildered and dismayed.

Someone posted videos of Thursday’s House delegation meeting on YouTube. Gil Hearn, who founded a group called Parents for DeKalb Schools, watched it and was appalled.

The father of four small children in Dunwoody favors a smaller board, complaining"Some of our elected representatives seem to be more concerned about friends and family than with the education of the children of DeKalb."

Hearn said he was as embarrassed by the DeKalb delegation's behavior as he was by the school board's.

"To think that meetings like that are determining such important things is frightening," he said. "The board of education is dysfunctional, but that group is clearly not functioning either."