Originally published on April 30, 2022 in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
My kids broke a window last month, and glass flew everywhere. Fingers were pointing at all involved, blame was being thrown around. I didn’t know who did it and, frankly, I didn’t care. What mattered was getting the mess cleaned up.
What happens when it’s a school system that gets shattered instead of a window?
The DeKalb County Board of Education abruptly fired the superintendent this week. Richard Woods, the state school superintendent, chastised the board. The NAACP said consistent leadership was needed in DeKalb County. Mayors within the county urged the board to “right this ship,” A state senator requested an investigation, and the governor expressed grave concerns.
Who did what? And, more importantly, what is the problem? The school board members only point fingers and shift blame, all the while failing to explain their rationale for their vote.
As the details emerge from what has turned into a whodunnit and why, the root of the problem reveals itself: poor leadership among adults who are partisan and tribalistic. They can’t see past their respective districts to serve the greater good of a school system as a whole. This is coupled with the board’s hiring of a superintendent —Watson-Harris — who had too little experience from the onset.
Much like other hyperlocal public services, leadership goes unnoticed if the services are being rendered on time and in the appropriate manner. It should be a fairly invisible structure that is methodically delivering appropriate service to its area. Instead, DeKalb school boards have drawn attention repeatedly when the process of governing is not effectively serving the constituents, which are the students of the district.
Why are we relying on high schoolers making videos with their phones to get school board members’ attention? Is this the way civic engagement is supposed to work?
This is not a new problem. Issues go back decades ago with the parade of short-lived superintendents, accreditation issues, financial mis-handlings and the escalation of political divisions of north and south DeKalb.
If the goals of a school board are weighed, DeKalb has exhibited deficiencies in all areas: vision casting, policy making, demonstrating accountability to the public, listening and responding to community concerns and pursuing board consensus for the benefit of the students.
In situations where there is obvious dysfunction within the school board, what are the next steps for the average parent and concerned citizen? Here are a few:
- Contact your state legislators and the office of the Georgia school superintendent. Express your thoughts and concerns regarding the school board. School boards get their power from state governing bodies and they report to them.
- Depoliticize the school board by placing board emphasis on governing issues at hand, including budgeting as well as fair and equal valuing of schools — no matter the location and financial status.
- Demand facts and data from the board members through a thorough investigation. If appropriate, call for their immediate resignation if unethical behavior is discovered.
Students should be the driving force for decisions. All information influencing those decisions should be given in a transparent manner to the public. There are kids and countless families now in a state of disappointment at best and panic at worst.
Will the state governing bodies address the needs of 93,000 children who are at the whim of a proven dysfunctional school board?
There’s plenty of blame to go around. Let’s quit pointing fingers and get to work cleaning up the mess. Action must be taken before another volatile board decision puts the hopes of an entire DeKalb community of young people in question.