Last night’s inaugural School Board meeting overall was a pleasant surprise. We are encouraged that a majority of the new Board members are unafraid to dig and ask questions of the staff. We are particularly (and surprisingly) encouraged by Thad Mayfield. He asked a series of pointed questions regarding the request to renew the contract for copiers without putting it out for bid. He also questioned the request for extending the contract for trailers while asking for additional money to purchase our own trailers. All in all, Board members asked good questions that had a user-centered focus, such as “what is the specific input of those impacted by what you are doing?”
The Board also put the kibosh on their participation in the lawsuit against the Governor. In reality, when you think about it, of course they would – they were appointed by the Governor (the defendant in this case) and his committee! But even so – we as taxpayers are happy to have at least this one legal expense off the table. For now.
We believe that the lawsuit will continue and Gene Walker will win – possibly forcing taxpayers to pay the legal fees in a judgement. Further, both Jim McMahan and Melvin Johnson voted “Yes” originally to enter the lawsuit and Marshall Orson was conveniently absent that day, which counts as a “Yes” as far as we are concerned. Had those three (Orson, Johnson, McMahan) voted “No” then Pam Speaks probably would have voted “No.” Nancy Jester already was the lone dissenting vote. So, with 5 “No” votes we would not have spent more money on legal expenses and we would not be in this as yet unfinished conundrum at all. Interesting that Orson and sidekick McMahan now think the money could be better spent elsewhere. What has changed in the past few weeks, except the way the political wind is blowing now? Too little, too late.
In addition, the Board introduced a new twist on their own meetings. Meetings will now take place only once a month, on the first Monday of the month. Instead of the community comments at the microphone, which never receive a response from the Board, they will begin the meeting with more of a Town Hall format, with the Board members down on the floor, interacting with the community and answering questions.
We are trying to determine what makes that approach different? The Board’s long-standing policy (which we think is an incorrect interpretation of the law) was that they could not respond to community comments because the comment topics were not known in advance and could not be included on the published agenda. Of course, that never stopped the Board from adding to and otherwise changing the agenda moments before it was officially adopted. In fact, that happened last night.
Additionally, we don’t feel good about the change in scheduled meetings, introduced by Marshall Orson. There is no time for Board members to ask questions and do their follow-up due diligence before having to vote. Last night was a perfect example. Without pausing to take a breath or ask the right questions — and there is a difference between asking questions and asking the “right” questions — the Board voted, nearly unanimously, to spend, sometimes unnecessarily, millions of dollars we don’t have.
All that said, we are a bit frustrated that many of our questions, published prior to the Board meeting, went unanswered. Here’s a list of questions we think the Board should have asked of staff:
- Why hasn’t anyone posted the new Board’s contact info online in order for the public to be able to contact us? There has been plenty of time to get that taken care of.
- Why are we providing cars to regional superintendents? Has this been done before? How does this benefit students? There are no cars being traded in and we do not believe cars were provided to regional superintendents previously. So, if they had cars, where are they? Sold off the books? Passed along to lower-level administrators?
- Why are we buying new school police vehicles? Do they use those cars for essential or dangerous police work? What exactly do they do with these vehicles? Drive them back and forth to work? Why? Do DeKalb County Police, who have a much more dangerous and difficult job, use county police vehicles for transportation to and from their jobs?
- Why are we buying vehicles for SPLOST-funded work? Where is the list of what is covered by SPLOST IV? Where are vehicles shown on that voter-approved list?
- Document the mileage claimed for these vehicles. How many of these miles were accumulated on-the-job?
Many taxpayers drive cars and trucks as old or older than many of those DCSS wants to replace. They know that being on the verge of bankruptcy is not the appropriate time to buy a new vehicle — or spend elsewhere unnecessarily. “Belt-tightening” is called for. SPLOST or General Fund — it is all tax dollars.
And then there are these questions that should have been asked regarding phasing out twelve instructional facilities:
- Vote to approve capital improvements for facilities that are scheduled to be torn down? What kind of reasoning is that?
- No immediate financial impact? Why? When will there be an impact?
- An increase in capital entitlement dollars? Is there a history of the Georgia General Assembly increasing funding of any kind for education?
- Is there a history of DCSS ever reducing administrative operating costs?
- Show us the calculations and the documentation – not guesswork – on which there is a reasonable expectation of increased legislative funding and reduced administrative operating expenses.
Just like dealing with recalcitrant teenagers, the Board must: Question everything. Assume nothing. Ask the “right” questions. And, always, the first question must be, “How does this directly benefit students and, especially, improve student achievement? Money is tight – and what we have must go directly to educating children.
Good luck to the new Board!