Pro & Con: Were Atlanta school board members right to revolt?

YES: The previous chair breached her powers; other members had no choice.

By John S. Sherman

The Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation, which I lead, believes the removal of LaChandra Butler Burks as chair by the five-member majority of the Atlanta Board of Education was absolutely justified.

Indeed, we believe there was sufficient cause to remove her from the board itself.

On Feb. 10, the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement announced that “256,779 wrong-to-right erasures occurred in 58 Atlanta schools in the 2009 state achievement tests known as CRCT.”

In the following weeks — without the knowledge or approval of the Atlanta Board of Education — Burks, then the board’s chair, met with Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, and John Rice, chairman of the Atlanta Education Fund, to surreptitiously plan and implement a course of action to investigate the cheating.

Any course of action regarding such investigations of the Atlanta Public Schools is the sole responsibility of the Atlanta Board of Education, not an unelected group of business leaders.

In an e-mail from Williams, dated Feb. 26 and published in the AJC on Aug. 18, Williams named Burks as a member of the Blue Ribbon Task Force “to help guide the work of the investigation.”

This, too, was done without the prior knowledge or approval of the board. The e-mail from Williams concluded, “We will let the facts from this investigation guide us in our support of Dr. Hall.”

On March 1, Burks announced the formation of the Blue Ribbon Task Force, a week before the school board formally voted to set the parameters of its work.

It was after Burks met with the chamber and the Atlanta Education Fund, after she accepted the appointment by Williams to the Blue Ribbon Task Force that Burks finally informed the Atlanta Board of Education of these actions.

By that time, it was too late for any input from other members of the board. I ask you, what choice did other board members have than to remove Burks and restore the authority of the board?

Her obligations as an elected official were to demand and guide a rigorous investigation of the CRCT cheating by the Atlanta Board of Education, not to deal with unelected and unaccountable groups and people in an effort that can only be perceived as a cover-up.

The feeling of the five-member majority was expressed by Chairman Khaatim Sherrer El: “When I found out what the previous chair had done, I was shocked and floored about the decisions that had been made before this board had a chance to formulate a plan about how we wanted to move forward.”

Every citizen of Atlanta must support majority rule in our democracy. The five-member majority of the Atlanta Board of Education should be commended for their courageous leadership at a time of severe crisis.

John S. Sherman is president of the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation. The foundation has filed a friend of the court brief in support of the new five-member majority on the APS board.

NO: The board’s antics harken to the days when meetings were theater.

By Lee Echols

When my son graduates from high school in 2013, I will have had children in the Atlanta Public School system for 18 straight years. With his diploma in hand and his sister a college graduate, my parental involvement in public education will end.

Memories will come rushing back of selling wrapping paper and magazines to neighbors and family. Of being unable to stand erect after weekends of planting trees, pouring cement and building playgrounds.

I will be proud of my children’s accomplishments. I will say to myself, “They are going to do well in this world.”

Another flashback may not be a pleasant one. It’s the memory of the Atlanta Board of Education and its 2010 civil war. I will remember how it tinkered with the academic livelihoods of tens of thousands of children as it fought a silly battle for position and power, what’s underway today at APS headquarters and in a nearby courtroom.

As their ludicrous acts of selfishness play out, the elected officials serving on the board surely must realize how foolish they appear. And how incredulous the rest of us are. Recently, these men and women sat before a judge to seek a resolution to their own infighting. To me, they looked like they were in the principal’s office — quiet, nervous, embarrassed and not sure why they were there.

What are they fighting about anyway? The new chairman of Atlanta Board of Education says it all started because they weren’t communicating with one another. All right, that shouldn’t be such a big deal. After all, how do we resolve communications problems?

We communicate. Most of us learned that in school.

But the school board chose to stick a dagger in itself and split into factions. One faction of four members is suing the other faction of five members. Whenever factions are formed, communication becomes difficult. An unwillingness to talk leads two sides to nowhere.

For now, though, the board has managed to get somewhere, and it’s a courtroom. What will they achieve there? One thing is for certain: They will not learn to communicate there. Instead, they will continue to jeopardize the academic dreams of all students in the system. The longer they conduct this trivial pursuit, the deeper the damage will be to the schools, the students and their families.

Many of us remember the days when watching the Atlanta school board meetings on cable television was great entertainment, something akin to a family argument combined with professional wrestling.

Since then, a number of outstanding board members made their marks in Atlanta public education. Even with its perennial challenges, the schools have moved forward in many areas with improved facilities, broader community and business support, and some of the state’s best teachers and staff.

In spite of a board whose members have forgotten why they are serving.

I sincerely hope someone finds a reasonable end to this. In the meantime, the board needs to shut up and start talking. We're ready to listen.

Lee Echols is president of The Echols Group in Atlanta.