Category Archives: Muscogee County School District

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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Muscogee County School Board argues about reporting of superintendent’s spending

Checkbook register online refers to the movement to empower people to scrutinize and oversee government by asking that government agencies post their checkbook registers online in an easily accessible and searchable format. However, many government agencies do not welcome that kind of scrutiny.

The Muscogee County School District (MCSD) doesn’t seem to be any different. The MCSD school board is split on whether or not to provide that level of transparency as Mark Rice with the Mucogee Ledger – Enquirer reports.

MARK RICE
mrice@ledger-enquirer.com

Four months after originally trying to get his proposal approved, District 2 representative John Thomas finally got the Muscogee County School Board to vote on his request for a new policy concerning the superintendent’s spending.

And it failed by a 3-4-1 vote Monday night.

Thomas’ proposal asked for all financial transactions approved by the superintendent without the board’s consent to be “prominently featured” on a new page on the district’s website. His proposed policy states that the report shall include the transaction’s date, the name of the entity receiving the payment, the purpose of the expenditure, the amount and the person(s) who authorized it.

Board policy allows the superintendent to authorize without board approval any contract for public works construction that doesn’t exceed $50,000 and any other school district purpose if the expenditure doesn’t exceed $15,000. Those thresholds are lifted in case of an emergency, defined in the board’s policy as “an eventuality, which cannot reasonably be foreseen and which if not corrected immediately will result in harm to people or property or in economic loss to the school system, or in substantial disruption of the instructional program.”

Although the Oct. 19 agenda item’s cover sheet contains the specificity Thomas requested in his proposal, the actual documents the board approved turned the wording into a more vague commitment. The agenda item also turned his request for a new policy into amendments to three existing policies.

Thomas tried to withdraw his proposal during the Oct. 19 meeting, but his effort failed 3-6, with Mark Cantrell of District 6 and Frank Myers of District 8 supporting him. Then in a 5-3-1 vote, the board approved the altered version of Thomas’ proposal, which Thomas, Cantrell and Myers voted against. Naomi Buckner of District 4 abstained.

Monday night’s vote split the same way, with Thomas, Cantrell and Myers voting yes and Buckner abstaining.

While administrators and board members asked for specifics about how detailed the “purpose” of the transaction should be, Myers interpreted those questions as “a bunch of clutter to try to stop this thing again.”

Superintendent David Lewis: “No, I’m trying to …”

Myers: “No, sir, again, please don’t interrupt me. That gets real old. I am so tired of people trying to throw up obstacles to transparency. This ain’t your school system, friends. This school system belongs to the people. Everybody can read. The same policy that’s on there tonight is on the agenda three months ago.”

Although that September meeting had Thomas’ proposal on the agenda, it mistakenly was listed as an action item. The board ended up not voting on it then because the proposal had to wait another month since it is a policy change. And between the September and October meetings, the wording in Thomas’ proposal mysteriously was changed. So by the time it was voted on in October, Thomas tried to get it withdrawn.

It all started back in August, when the board, in a 3-6 vote, defeated Thomas’ proposal to reduce from $15,000 to $5,000 for the limit to the superintendent’s authority to spend without the board’s consent. Myers and Cantrell sided with Thomas.

Within that August proposal was Thomas’ call for the superintendent’s expenditures to be posted on the district’s website. Thomas brought back that part as a separate proposal for the next meeting.

So the board has passed what Thomas and Myers contend is a watered-down version of the proposal’s original intent, and this time the board’s majority is pushing them for more specifics. For example, Buckner said, the administration needs to know whether a purchase of paper should be listed as “paper” or the type of paper.

Lewis said the distinction matters so his administration could follow the policy.

Board vice chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1 insisted all the information already is available on the district’s website. Thomas and Myers, however, argue it isn’t in a form for the public to readily access and easily understand.

“What you’re going to have is called a data dump,” Myers aid.

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