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Dysfunctional School Board Fractures Over Accountability

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By Sam Weinstock

In a rare public display  of division on the Atlanta Board of Education, a slim majority ousted the board leadership during its Sept. 13 meeting.

Five of the board’s nine members—Khaatim Sherrer El, Yolanda Johnson, Nancy Meister, Courtney English and Brenda Muhammad—first passed a contentious policy change that would allow a simple majority to remove the board chair and vice-chair instead of a two-thirds majority. The five members immediately exercised this ability by removing LaChandra Butler Burks, the previous chairwoman, and Cecily Harsch-Kinnane, then vice-chair of the board. They then voted in Khateem Sherrer El as the new chair and Yolanda Johnson as vice-chair. The policy change was contentious because those five members proposed it in August, and the board’s own legal counsel determined that it violated the board’s charter. The board eventually decided not to vote on it after mayor Kasim Reed intervened and spoke about the negative consequences such divisiveness could have on the system’s students, pending the attorney general’s ruling on its legality.

El did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Harsch-Kinnane, a Grady parent, thought that sending the issue to the attorney general should have closed the issue, and she’s not exactly sure why it didn’t.

“Monday [Sept. 13], a board member requested that [the policy change] be put back on the agenda. And the board’s counsel explained why not,” Harsch-Kinnane said. “It was put back on the agenda anyway. It was pointed out at length by our counsel why it was not following the law.”

Butler Burks agreed that the change violated board policy.

“I would say that it definitely goes against the charter, our board policy and other state laws,” Butler Burks said.

APS director of media relations Keith Bromery explained the counsel’s rationale as, “you don’t just come up in the middle of the terms and say, ‘well, we don’t like the way you’re running things.’ It’s in the charter that the board chair and vice-chair are elected for two-year terms. The general counsel’s argument is that [the leadership change] wasn’t the intent of the charter.”

In an open letter to the “Concerned Atlanta Citizen,” Harsch-Kinnane, Butler Burks, McDaniel and Emmett Johnson declared their opposition to El and Johnson’s election, quoting Martin Luther King Jr. in saying, “I am not interested in power for power’s sake, but I’m interested in power that is moral, that is right and that is good.” The four members who wrote the letter asked the citizens of Atlanta to “join us in saying yes to the rule of law and no to an illegal coup d’etat. The students and citizens of Atlanta deserve no less.”

Johnson pointed out that the board’s counsel’s opinion was nothing more than that.

“I believe that [our counsel’s] opinion is flawed,” new vice-chair Yolanda Johnson said.

“[The five members of the majority] listened to [the counsel’s advice], but by the same token they said they felt they could move forward,” Bromery said.

Harsch-Kinnane isn’t sure what would happen if the attorney general were to overturn the policy.

“You would think it would make [the policy] void,” Harsch-Kinnane said. “I don’t know how smooth that would be. People will still fight it.”

Butler Burks seemed optimistic about such a ruling.

“I would hope that the five board members would take action to reverse anything that they had done,” Butler Burks said. “I would hope that we would take the attorney general’s opinion as being something firm and true, and some have said that it is just an opinion. I don’t think so.”

Burks thought that if the board did not reverse its policy, the state might intervene.

“If it comes back that the actions were illegal and we don’t take the opportunity to right our wrongs, I do think that we take the chance of looking at a higher authority,” Butler Burks said.

Why?

 

Johnson, a member of the majority, claims that the former board leadership’s communication problems warranted the measure.

“There were some communication issues and we felt that in order for us to hold the system accountable, we needed to be able to hold ourselves accountable,” Johnson said.

“They stated they wanted to take things in a new direction,” Bromery said.

Harsch-Kinnane recalled similarly vague  reasoning.

“They said they did not like the style, which is all they could share,” Harsch-Kinnane said. “There was never anything real they could say. They didn’t feel like they were being listened to by the chair. Even if that had been the case, it didn’t matter.”

Burks thought that any rationale behind the change didn’t make sense anyway.

“We have not heard any of what I consider to be legitimate reasons,” Butler Burks said. “Our charter gives a process you have to follow, and none of that was done. Usually it’s an ethics violation, abandonment of the position or things of that nature, and then there is still a process in having a hearing that has to be done before one can be removed.”

James Bostic, who represents the 5th Congressional District, including Atlanta, on the Georgia Board of Education, theorized that the change was an attempt to protect Atlanta board member Courtney English from ethics charges he incurred from using a board credit card improperly.

“[English] has gotten himself in some serious ethical problems with using a credit card that charged $900,” Bostic said. “As a member of the board, he knows that you cannot go and charge personal things to your business credit card. Now he’s in trouble. And clearly [the policy change] was advantageous to him. His siding so that they’re five members certainly helps protect him when he gets the finding from the ethics commission.”

Bostic listed removal from the board as a possible consequence for English’s actions.

“We’ll see what kind of guts the board has,” Bostic said.

Johnson thought that such a theory was based completely on speculation, and suggested that the four-member minority was trying to “punish” English for not voting with it.

“What you have is an agenda by people who find themselves in what they consider to be a losing position,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, you have sour grapes and an unwillingness to move forward. And I think that is shameful in a public service context.”

Consequences for the system

 

Seeing that the legislative body for APS is divided over who its leaders are, there is concern among onlookers, as well as board members themselves, that such a schism could have negative effects on students, teachers and other stakeholders in the school system.

Bostic said that the division was a distraction from what the board should be focused on.

“[The board] doesn’t get the work that needs to be done to make sure that you’re constantly looking at the success of students,” Bostic said. “That’s the big issue.”

Harsch-Kinnane described the relationship among board members following the vote as “odd,” and Butler Burks said it was “awkward.”

“No one’s going to know quite what this means,” Harsch-Kinnane said. “It’s very unsettling about what’s going on. [The majority] is pleased as punch right now.”

Johnson, of the majority, thought the board’s dynamic was off for a different reason.

“It’s tense,” Johnson said. “The four who are not in the majority don’t seem willing to participate. It’s sad that they’re not able to put their personal feelings aside and move forward.”

Butler Burks said that with Superintendent Beverly Hall’s contract running out next summer, a divided board does not bode well for the possible selection of a new superintendent.

“I think it will be very difficult to find a qualified person who will want to come in and work for what I call a dysfunctional board, and especially one that ignores the advice of general counsel and legal opinions,” Burks said.

Harsch-Kinnane,  Butler Burks and Bostic all mentioned that such dysfunction could put the system’s accreditation in jeopardy.

“Systems have lost their accreditation from [dysfunction on the board],” Harsch-Kinnane said. “That’s how Clayton County lost accreditation. Students are put at risk. If this behavior is allowed to stand, it’s total chaos—anything can go.”

Bostic shared Harsch-Kinnane’s concern about accreditation.

“[Accreditation] could be an issue,” Bostic said. “But it’s all going to depend on whether or not parents and teachers and people in the community decide that the situation is OK, or they find it to be unacceptable and they decide to put together a complaint and ask the governor to take a look at it.”

Johnson dismissed accreditation concern, but said that the new board leadership was reaching out to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the accreditation agency, for an opinion on the issue.

Harsch-Kinnane also believes that such an extreme consequence is unlikely, and she assured that “the system is still functioning smoothly.”

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Dysfunctional School Board Fractures Over Accountability