The Supremacy of the School Superintendent

Georgia state legislation reinforces the supremacy of the superintendent and their administration. The board hires the superintendent, but serves no purpose after that and may as well disband. Has anybody ever seen a local board of education (or Georgia’s State Board of Education for that matter) vote no on anything … ever? Does a board of education make policy or just approve the policy brought before it by the Superintendent?

If the board of education is going to rubber stamp everything, who is going to hold a school district accountable? I’ve asked the Georgia Department of Education this on numerous occasions, and they consistently insist that the DOE’s role is advisory and not to hold a district accountable for any standards. Perhaps this is why the Governor’s OSD is gaining traction.

Fife Whiteside was elected to the Muscogee County School Board in 1993. He’s been shining a light on the shady operations over there for quite some time. Here’s his latest article … like most articles I see coming out of Muscogee, should be titled “WTF”.

By Fife Whiteside

The school board’s vote to approve the School District budget without the full three percent pay raise promised and funded by the General Assembly, a decision supported by murky and convoluted excuses, perfectly framed the issues that should have been presented in the recent elections.

Didn’t happen. The elections became about personalities and not policy. Hateful and divisive. Violent almost. The truth of how that happened is unclear. Both sides blame the other.

The truth of what happened to the pay raise, however, is clear. The superintendent had the money to fund the raise, which was the legislator’s intent. He just had something else for which he wanted to use the money. Making those hard choices is always involved in school budgeting.

He may have been justified in that, but this is fundamentally a policy issue (what the school district’s priorities are), and part of the board’s job is to question his decision. A background issue is how much school districts can get away with defying state lawmakers and still keep “local control.” The Governor’s Opportunity School District proposal (which would authorize the state to take over perpetually failing schools) comes to mind.

Over the last 10 years the board, often by unanimous vote, has passed every budget without serious question from the majority, sometimes on the basis of “executive summaries” of the budget delivered just before the vote. By contrast, city budgets are routinely picked apart and changed by council. The Natatorium is a good example. What’s the difference?

Having done this for 15 years (1993-2008) during which time the role of the school board morphed to what it is now is, I offer up my two cents.

If the board’s only function were to hire a superintendent, they should disband after that is done and save taxpayers over $100,000 a year in board pay. Historically, the board had two additional major functions, make policy and provide oversight. To enable those functions the law extended them enormous power, including absolute control over the budget. They had the power to extend the full pay raise.

Good intentions notwithstanding, business and civic leadership, and to some extent the media, appear unwilling to tolerate a strong board, one that uses that power; hence, the board is urged to “support the superintendent,” which really means “Shut up and say yes.” Even if it means teachers do not get deserved raises.

That was certainly evident in the recent school board elections. The “establishment candidates”

Pat Green (sister of Isaiah Hugely, city manager) and Cathy Williams (wife of reporter Chuck Williams), won handily, after raising more than $36,102 (over $30 per runoff vote) funded largely by business and civic leaders, including the mayor’s husband.

Why local leadership sees it this way is debatable. Perhaps it comes from a belief that communities cannot select competent boards, going back to the elected vs. appointed board debate.

It may also come from a belief that a community suffers more from the image damage of public debate than from having mediocre schools. Atlanta Superintendent Dr. Beverly Hall was the darling of business and media, even after her indictment for faking test scores, which made the Atlanta schools look better than they are.

When I was on the board, I rather thought that my job was to support the children, not the superintendent. The difference is not semantic. Superintendents are not infallible. You can ask the children of Woodall about that. That should have been fixed a year ago and a functional (rather than a ceremonial) board would have seen that it was. The board should be apologizing to those children, not administrators.

Similarly, superintendents’ ideas are not always aligned with community sentiment. The administration building (sometimes derisively called McPec or Taj Mahal), built for twice what was promised, at a time when many students were in deficient facilities, like Woodall, comes to mind.

Things like unattended schools and palatial administration buildings are anecdotal. The annual loss of large amounts of money, on sloppy, “no bid” or “barely bid” procurement is systemic. Also systemic are failing schools, the administration’s strange tolerance for bullying, and its lack of real candor, like trying to shift the blame for lower raises to the General Assembly.

Having a board with no function other than handing out diplomas at graduation is not the way this was meant to work. The teachers and staff report to the superintendent. He reports to the board. The board reports to the public. The board’s job is to hold the superintendent accountable. When I began to hear board members talking about the superintendents under whom they “had served,” I realized that was lost.

Perhaps in another election we can talk about the role of the board and not about threats to people’s jobs and vulgar accusations of incest. Probably not. I suspect anyone, no matter how “polite,” who runs on a platform of a strong board will encounter well-funded and ardent opposition from those who want the board to do nothing. The children, and not the unsuccessful candidates, end up being the real losers. They, and we, deserve better.

Fife M. Whiteside is a Columbus attorney in private practice.


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