Tom Barton: School board members should pen resignation letters

It’s time to think about the future of Savannah’s public schools and ask some tough, unpopular questions, like what matters more: the educational futures of the 36,000 students who go to these schools or the futures of the nine elected adults on the school board?

 

The smart play is to side with the students. They are the future after all.

The school board? It looks like toast — leading the district toward the jaws of a loss of accreditation and a forcible evacuation of their seats by Gov. Nathan Deal. So why wait for the inevitable? Why not attempt some damage control? Other than pride, there’s nothing from stopping the nine school board members from taking the high road, writing resignation letters and then put them in safe places for now.

They don’t have to sign them, not just yet. That might come later, right after Gov. Deal decides whether to give them the boot, which he’s likely to do given the evidence so far.

The train wreck that is Savannah-Chatham’s school board is an argument for having an appointed school board, which Deal might give us. It’s further proof that the community has been failing miserably in getting qualified candidates to run for the school board. That task must always be a top public priority.

The public will soon be paying a price for having a dysfunctional board whose president fought openly and bitterly with Superintendent Thomas Lockamy, the highly regarded and successful superintendent here for the last 12 years.

Lockamy, who might have stayed longer, actually did what a lot of other bozos in his position promised to do but never did — he actually raised the school district’s graduation rate and lowered the dropout rate. He also helped reverse the outflight of families with school-aged children from Chatham County to Effingham and Bryan counties, and he helped rebuild public confidence in public schools, much to the chagrin of some area private schools that have been losing enrollment and tuition dollars.

 

Laurel and Hardy act

If Dr. Lockamy was a bone-head like some of his predecessors, especially Col. John O’Sullivan, then School Board President Jolene Byrne and her willing accomplices on the board would have been right to question Lockamy’s every move and ask him to empty his pockets before leaving work every day. Instead, they showed appalling unprofessional judgment. And consequently, investigators from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) will soon be in town to investigate official complaints filed against the school board for wrongly meddling in district and school operations. To paraphrase what Oliver Hardy used to tell Stan Laurel: “Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into, Jolene.”

If history is a lesson here, and I believe it is, SACS is likely to come down on the district and its tragic Laurel and Hardy act like a baby grand piano dropped from the roof of the school district’s office at 208 Bull St.

SACS has been in this position before with Savannah-Chatham. The facts may be different but the pattern is the same.

The accrediting agency put the school district on probation in 2004 after investigators found that three board members were wrongly interfering with district operations by pushing for selected vendors to be awarded specific contracts, telling principals how to run their schools or administrators to change their instructional programs and seeking favors or special consideration for children of friends and acquaintances.

SACS would determine that these allegations were either true or mostly true. When you’ve seen one train wreck, you’ve seen them all. SACS would go on to appoint a special team to oversee the board’s promise to change its ways and to behave more professionally. SACS generously gave the district one whole year to prove that the three troublesome board members could rein themselves in — then the district could get off probation.

At that grim moment, the storm clouds over the school board opened, and the angry churning sea it had been floundering in parted. The lions lay down with the lambs and the board found religion and began working as a team. A committee of civic, business and educational leaders was formed to help guide the school board and give it the direction and help it had needed for a long time.

Better public schools genuinely became a top public priority. It must be stated that the community didn’t arrive at this critical juncture because of lovey, dovey philanthropy, or because of an epiphany of warm-and-fuzzy communalism. Rather, it was a hard-core business realization that the era of mostly awful public schools in Savannah had to end, as the city’s business community could no longer promote Savannah’s business growth if investors and transplants were forced to send their children to costly private schools to get a quality education.

In short order, the board members who were deemed the worst troublemakers: DeWayne Hamilton, Lori Brady, Susu Cox were gone. A fourth, Billy Knight, departed after he was convicted on an insurance kickback scheme involving tax dollars. A weak but well-meaning board president, Diane Cantor, was replaced by an equally well-meaning but possibly weaker board president, Hugh Golson. He lasted only one term.

But, best of all, O’Sullivan was sent packing in 2004, ending a three-year reign of terrible. The new board, made lighter by the heavy loads that were dumped, set a new course for a better future. A critical part of that course were the actions that led up to the hiring of Dr. Lockamy, who had been wasting away in backwater Virginia, in 2005.

The train wreck got cleaned up and the train was put back on new straighter tracks. When Joe Buck was elected in 2006 to the first of his two terms as school board president, he and Lockamy became the dynamic duo for much of the progress made in the public school system in recent years, including the improvement of the graduation rate to 83.2 percent and reduction of the dropout rate to 2.6 percent — rates that were once considered unachieveable.

Passage of state legislation that limited Buck to two terms may be the worst local bill the Chatham County delegation has ever approved. That’s because it set the table for a wide open race for school board president in 2014 — a contest that the respected and successful Buck would have won in a cakewalk if he wasn’t term-limited.

Instead, voters were left with a relatively weak field and no strong choices. The highlight of the 2014 race for board president was when a supporter of eventual winner Jolene Byrne mocked opponent David Simons by dressing up in a chicken suit after Simons ducked a public appearance. That’s no way to pick a school board leader.

 

Simons was right

And let’s give credit where credit is due: As things turned out — as predicted by the chicken man Simons — Byrne’s lack of leadership experience was a problem. She and Lockamy mixed like warm milk and pizza. The district went from having a dynamic duo in charge to a stunningly dysfunctional duo at the helm. It’s hard to see the relationship between the board president and superintendent improving, as Byrne was among the four board members who voted against new superintendent Ann Levett, Lockamy’s top lieutenant, in a split 5-4 vote last month. And just as stunningly, the current board has enabled this ongoing dysfunction by not getting off its collective duff to fix it. And now 36,000 students could pay a steep price — loss of HOPE scholarships if SACS imposes the death penalty and loss of accreditation, which is possible given Chatham’s checkered history and SACS’ tough line on school boards.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Or, even close.

History also teaches us that Deal isn’t afraid of removing elected school board members in Georgia who flunk their jobs. Indeed the statewide score is 11-3 in the guv’s favor — 11 school board members booted in failing DeKalb and Dooly counties, and three board members retained in those counties.

As a sign of good faith to SACS and Deal, it would be seem productive if every sitting member of the Savannah-Chatham board, from Byrne on down, stepped down for the good of the students and wrote a resignation letter. Yes, it would be an admission of failure. But why not clear the decks now for a better future ahead and start fresh. Don’t let the governor do the dirty work. Forced resignations are coming from Deal as surely as the next tide at Tybee.

So why wait? Take the high road. Write those resignation letters, then sign them later. Do it for the good of 36,000 students who deserve better support from the adults in their lives. SACS would have to be impressed and perhaps would cut the district some slack and go easy on sanctions.

By resigning, at least board members can hold up their heads and leave public office with some smidgen of dignity and not with the governor’s bootprint on their hind parts.

 

Tom Barton is the editorial page editor of the Savannah Morning News. tom.barton@savannahnow.com

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