If voters agree to Amendment 1, they’ll be approving a change to the state constitution. Opponents and proponents are making claims in their competing ads about what the change would accomplish. This is what it would actually do. (Erica A. Hernandez)

Deal steps up fight with school boards over Opportunity School plan

With his Opportunity School District amendment facing a tough fight, Gov. Nathan Deal has made it clear he will turn his attention to one of the proposal’s biggest critics — local school boards — if it fails at the polls Nov. 8.

Deal told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that if Amendment 1 fails, he wants local boards to start helping more children attending low-performing schools switch to the school of their choice.

And Deal staffers said the governor is ready to take away local school boards’ flexibility in how they use state money for teacher pay raises. The AJC reported Tuesday that only 40 percent of districts used the money for permanent pay raises this year.

In an interview, the Republican governor cast local school boards as a power-hungry monopoly and said he would ratchet up the pressure on them to embrace trust-busting changes if voters in November reject his proposed constitutional amendment to create an Opportunity School District.

“If the amendment is not successful, then I expect local boards of education to demonstrate more than just simply saying, ‘Don’t intrude on our territory,’ ” he said.

“For example, they have the authority to allow a parent or guardian of a child in a chronically failing school to attend another school that is not failing in their own school district,” he added. “Thus far, they have not seen the initiative to do things like that. That would be a simple change they could make.”

The General Assembly passed a law in 2009 giving parents the ability to cross neighborhood boundaries and select almost any campus in their district as long as there is room in the school and parents provide transportation.

Jason Downey, the vice president of the Macon-Bibb County school board and an opponent of Deal’s proposed amendment, said he agreed with the governor that local districts should allow students in failing schools to transfer to better facilities.

“This is something that has been in place for years and is available to parents if they really push the issue,” said Downey, who added that he’s glad that Deal is already looking to “compel local school boards to follow laws already in place” if his plan tanks.

But Ralph Noble, a retired longtime Whitfield County teacher and former president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said the provision mandating that parents provide transportation to the new school is problematic for some Georgians.

“The bottom line is, people want to send their children to schools in their own community,” he said.

‘No reason to change’

Amendment 1 would give the state the power to intervene in persistently failing schools through a new statewide school district, and Deal has pitched the idea as a way to reverse a cycle of poverty from local school districts he says have failed children for too long.

It faces staunch opposition from leading Democrats, educators and more than 40 school boards — including some in Republican areas. They say it would hand control of local schools to an aloof entity that’s not accountable to voters and give the governor’s office too much power.

An AJC poll released last week found nearly 60 percent of voters would vote against the amendment, including a majority of Republicans willing to defy the governor.

But the poll question, which laid out the pros and cons of the debate, is different than the question voters will see on the ballots. That question is worded more favorably for supporters, and the governor’s allies say they remain confident it will pass in November.

Deal made clear he will ramp up his scrutiny of school districts if the measure fails, calling the boards of education “monopolies.”

“Monopolies, as a general rule, have no competition and see no reason to change,” he said. “I would expect them to show some evidence that they’re willing to change.

“We have relegated the authority to these local school boards forever, and the result is exactly what we’re up against now. I don’t think anybody is really satisfied with that now,” he said. “I expect them to do something other than just spout rhetoric.”

A warning shot

For Deal, the pre-emptive warning to local districts is the latest in a string of broadsides he and his allies have leveled at school boards.

His chief of staff, Chris Riley, sent districts an inquiry last week asking how they use payroll deductions for educators’ membership dues in powerful teachers groups. It was seen as a prelude to legislation that could ban educators from using the deductions to join professional organizations. The National Education Association and its local affiliate, the GAE, have been the main funders of the campaign to defeat Amendment 1.

One of the other teacher organizations, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, emailed members Tuesday about Riley’s request.

“Targeted legislation like this would send a clear signal to Georgia’s educators regarding Gov. Deal’s displeasure with educators and their advocates for speaking up about the issues that matter to them,” Craig Harper of PAGE said in the email. “And, any attempt to dictate how local districts administer their day-to-day payroll processes would be an unnecessary and unwarranted state overreach into the administrative decision-making of local boards of education and superintendents.”

Deal’s office on Monday blasted school districts that failed to use about $300 million in extra money to grant teachers a 3 percent pay raise. Many of the districts used the money for a one-time bonus, to reduce furloughs or fill holes in their school system budgets.

School boards had asked Deal and lawmakers for flexibility in how they use the raise money a few years ago because many districts were struggling to recover from years of spending cuts, as well as teacher furloughs brought on by the Great Recession. Dozens of school boards took the politically unpopular step of raising local property tax rates to pay their bills.

But Deal was not happy to learn that after pushing to increase school spending for several years in a row, many school systems were still not using the money for teacher raises.

“With the additional spending this year, furloughs should have been a thing of the past and teachers should have received that 3 percent pay raise,” said his spokeswoman, Jen Talaber Ryan.

She said the governor will write next year’s budget proposal in such a way that any money for pay raises would only be used for pay raises.

Districts that continue to struggle financially may have to furlough teachers or eliminate other spending to pass the raise money along, school officials and educators said.

“If we need to cut money out of the budget, we’d have to add furlough days,” said Randy Yeargin, a longtime member of the Oglethorpe County school board, which used raise money to eliminate teacher furlough days.

Georgia Senate Minority Whip Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, said Deal and his administration are trying to bully school boards and teachers into silence on the Opportunity School District amendment.

“We expect more from a governor,” Fort said. “These are serious policy issues, and he is using threats and intimidation to get his way. It’s reprehensible that he would use the power of the governor’s office to threaten teachers and school boards like he has the past few months.”

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