A small group of people you’ve probably never heard of spend $8 billion of your tax money each year, employ more than 90,000 people and set policies that affect 800,000 area schoolchildren.
They are elected, but in some cases with fewer than 20 percent of voters casting ballots.
They are your school board members.
Metro Atlanta has some of the best and some of the worst.
There are patterns discernible in their bios: Most have college degrees; most get annual training; but a surprising 40 percent have had financial problems — bankruptcies or liens — even as they control multimillion-dollar and even billion-dollar budgets.
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Recently, several metro Atlanta boards have presided over school systems in crisis. Often, those that do are accused of meddling at the schoolhouse.
Board members in Clayton County, which in 2008 became the first district in the nation in 40 years to lose national accreditation, were slammed for working to get a coach fired and intimidating school staff to get relatives hired, among other things.
The accreditation agency is now looking at DeKalb County, where a grand jury indicted top school officials, a school board member sold pizza to campuses and administrators peddled books they wrote to schools, all while board members bickered.
In Atlanta, on the other hand, the school board was accused of being disengaged as a cheating scandal mushroomed. State and federal investigations are now under way into evidence of widespread cheating on tests.
Some school board members simply aren’t up to the job, said Donald R. McAdams, president of the Houston-based Center for Reform of School Systems, which trains boards nationally.
“School board members, on average, are like nurses and teachers. They mean well. They go into that line of work because they really care,” he said. “A lot of them are qualified, competent people, but a lot of them aren’t.”
On the heels of problems in DeKalb and Atlanta, the AJC spent two months studying nine metro school boards. The AJC talked to parents, school officials, lawmakers and experts. Reporters looked through court records, campaign data, studies and legislative and school commission reports.
Some of the findings were troubling, such as the prevalence of financial problems, nepotism and the state’s failure to police training requirements.
But there were positive signs.
Ninety percent of Georgia boards operate efficiently, said Mark Elgart, CEO of AdvancED, the parent organization of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits schools.
“But then you have 10 percent that are dysfunctional, and they take so much energy and attract so much public attention that it makes it seem like it’s everybody,” he said.
Experts say two things are generally evident in well-run boards: longevity and the ability to resist micromanagement.
Gwinnett County’s board, for example, has both attributes, including 85 years of combined service among five members; it has maintained high academic standards even as its student population skyrocketed and grew much more diverse.
Metro Atlanta parents give their boards mixed reviews.
Bruce Piefke, a father of two Fulton County students, gives his board an “A” for “their openness and willingness to seek parental and community input on key issues in a very challenging environment for public school systems.”
Jennifer Falk, a Gwinnett schools parent, gives her local board a “C.”
“I think some kids get an ‘A’ education, and I think some kids get less. That is because the schools are too big,” she said. “Some kids are getting lost.”
Micromanaging a problem
Boards often get in trouble when they micromanage systems. Instead of setting policy and letting superintendents and staff implement those policies, they wind up at schools.
“If you ask superintendents in the metro area, many of their board members are tied to the daily work of the school [system], and that’s where they get themselves in trouble,” Elgart said.
Cherokee County schools were placed on a one-year probation by SACS in 1998 after one board member was accused of demanding changes in school bus routes, and another stopped a bus to discipline a student seen throwing a soft drink can out the bus window.
Clayton County schools got into trouble twice in five years, both times in part because of school board micromanaging.
Clayton was stripped of its accreditation, which not only can make it harder for graduates to get into college and receive scholarships, but also hurts a community’s prestige and economic well-being. Clayton’s accreditation loss was blamed for driving out college-bound students and accelerating declines in property values.
Atlanta’s board may have the opposite problem. Until recently, it had been largely quiet and gave the impression of being disconnected while the credibility of the system’s testing program came into question.
The Atlanta board chose not to supervise a state-ordered investigation into alleged cheating on standardized tests. Instead, it deferred to a “blue ribbon commission” made up largely of business leaders.
In the weeks after the commission issued its August report, as the state and U.S. attorney’s office began investigations of possible criminal charges, board leadership turned over in a drama that has each side threatening to sue the other.
The new chairman, Khaatim Sherrer El, said when the threat of scandal rocked the system, everybody weighed in except members of the school board.
“Our silence was unacceptable because, at the end of the day, we are the body that is held accountable by the public to ensure things like this don’t happen in the first place,” El said.
Jim Puckett, a board development specialist for the Georgia School Boards Association, said the word “dysfunctional” is thrown around a lot to describe battling boards. He’s not so sure those squabbles equate to poor school performance.
“There are those who say the DeKalb board is dysfunctional right now,” he said. “But if you go down there, the buses are running, the teachers are teaching, the administrators are administrating.”
New scrutiny on boards
School board problems get more publicity these days; along with that have come efforts to set some rules.
SACS’ focus has shifted in the past decade or so. In the 1990s, it was interested in facilities: whether schools have enough teachers or books. By the early 2000s, said Elgart, SACS’ leader, the group began looking closely at quality issues such as school governance and leadership.
The Legislature also turned its attention to school board issues after the Clayton County debacle, with bills to make it easier for the governor to dismiss local board members, mandating ethics policies and limiting nepotism.
At least 22 of 63 metro board members who responded to questions from the AJC said they have family members working for the districts they govern.
In 2009, among other reforms, lawmakers prohibited individuals from serving on local school boards if an immediate family member held an administrative job in the system.
The law was challenged in court by two school board members who would have been affected. A judge barred enforcement of the provision. This year, lawmakers passed a similar law with a grandfather clause for workers on school payrolls before last Jan. 1.
The new law also makes Georgia one of the first states — if not the first — to require local boards to have ethics codes. But critics complain the law does not impose specific sanctions for members who violate it.
School boards have power
Reform is meaningful because boards in Georgia have more power than in some states where union contracts largely dictate the terms of employment and budgets. Boards here approve budgets, tax rates, staffing, land buys, school zones and often curriculum.
Some board members have extensive education and backgrounds in finance and business. But the AJC found that almost every district also has members who have had tax liens or bankruptcies.
Clayton County School Board Chairwoman Alieka Anderson filed for bankruptcy last year, claiming $157,000 in assets and $263,000 in liabilities. Her financial disclosure lists her as a teacher, as well as the owner of a Dollar Store.
Anderson declined to talk about the bankruptcy.
Another Clayton board member, Charlton Bivins, has had property tax liens almost every year since 2002. He paid the bills after the liens were filed. Around the time he qualified for re-election this spring, he also paid a $30,310 federal tax lien for taxes due 2002-2004.
Bivins said, “There were just some things going on. I’m in the middle of a divorce.”
Anderson faced no opposition for re-election this year, and Bivins won a run-off in which barely 800 people voted.
Cherokee County board member Robert Rechsteiner has had numerous property tax liens that he eventually paid. Rechsteiner, who was unopposed for another term this year, said he has filed paperwork with the IRS to settle another tax lien of nearly $22,000 filed in May. Rechsteiner said some of his financial problems occurred while he was a pro wrestler and traveled.
Cherokee County board candidate Tony Guice filed for bankruptcy in 2007 after taking $2 million in loans and having some real estate deals go bad. Guice said he has a degree in finance, a master’s in business administration and is a part-time finance and accounting instructor at the University of Phoenix.
“Voters need someone who’s taken some licks and kept going,” Guice said.
The bankruptcies and liens, however, raise the question of whether people with financial problems are equipped to deal with the financial decisions boards have to make.
The budgets are huge. Counting all sources of revenue, the budgets of metro Atlanta schools exceed the amount state government spends on education each year. Gwinnett County’s board alone spends almost as much as the state does on its university system.
Virtually every board has faced criticism for how it spends that money.
In 2007, a grand jury found numerous instances of Cobb County officials violating school board policies in bidding an $80 million contract to put laptops in the hands of teachers and students. The board scuttled the plan after a court decision went against it.
In the past decade, both Clayton and DeKalb have been slammed for doling out huge payouts to oust superintendents.
This year, the AJC found Atlanta’s district continued to violate federal rules intended to prevent waste in technology projects, undeterred by a 2004 scandal that cost it millions of dollars and sent two former employees to prison.
In the face of budget cuts in recent years, boards have been hammered for spending big money on administrators while furloughing or laying off teachers, aides and bus drivers.
As DeKalb County’s board faced a $56 million deficit, it gave the soon-to-be-indicted Superintendent Crawford Lewis a $15,000 raise.
Two suggestions experts make for improving school board performance are setting education requirements and mandating training.
The state has long required six hours of annual training for veteran board members and 12 hours for rookies, but there were no real consequences if they didn’t get it. Until now.
The new state law says board members can’t serve without training.
In the most recent years for which the state Department of Education has figures, about 10 percent of the state’s approximately 1,050 board members didn’t get required training.
Records show that only four of nine Atlanta board members got training for 2008-2009 and three of nine the previous year.
Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, who co-sponsored the reform bill this year, said training is vital because of the “complexity and the magnitude of what they have to do.
“They are taking over 50 percent of all the taxpayers’ money to spend on educating children who will be the future of the country,” Williams said. “You can’t put part-time people in a job managing a multimillion-dollar budget when they don’t know what to do.”
The new law does not impose academic requirements on board members. The Commission for School Board Excellence, a chamber-of-commerce-backed board reform group, recommends board members have at least high school diplomas or the equivalent, as required in some other states.
But lawmakers have long resisted any such qualifications for local officials. And the Georgia School Boards Association says it’s rare these days for board members not to have at least high school diplomas.
State lawmakers can sponsor legislation setting qualifications for their local boards. Chatham County lawmakers did so this year. Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, said his delegation is looking at requiring at least some college for board members in DeKalb. All current DeKalb members would meet that qualification.
Jan Flynn, a management expert at Georgia College and State University who served on a Commission for School Board Excellence advisory group, said she is concerned about the lack of qualifications many board members bring to the job.
“As the process and the business of education has gotten so much more complex, the model we are carrying is this sort of small community with a group of citizens managing their children’s education,” Flynn said. “I think the model has outlived its usefulness.”
Political rewards, low pay
Election to a local school board can be a political stepping stone, just as county commission or city council posts have always been. About a dozen state lawmakers served on local school boards. So did former President Jimmy Carter. Sandra Scott, who was kicked off the Clayton County board in 2008 when the system lost accreditation, recently won a state House seat.
“Historically, school boards have been an entryway into politics,” said Stephen Dolinger, president of the nonprofit Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education.
Aspiring board members often look to teacher or business groups for support. School employees have an obvious interest in who gets elected. But turnout is low.
Even after months of publicity before the Clayton County system lost its accreditation, only about 16 percent of voters came out for school board elections. A check of other districts shows that’s not uncommon in summer elections.
Many school boards around the country aren’t paid. In Georgia, board pay varies. Many urban board members earn in the range of $10,000 to $20,000 per year.
Corey Wilson, a father of two Oak View Elementary students who is running for the DeKalb County board, called it a “dog-catcher’s race.” He attends chamber of commerce lunches, civic meetings and homeowner’s association get-togethers to get the word out.
“It’s not the sexiest race in the world, but it’s the most important race that exists on God’s green earth,” Wilson said.