The rest of the story: Josh McKoon and “the Way the Game is Played”-Part Two (CSU Funding)




Note to Readers:  This is a second part to a post that ran week before last.  

Also readers will note that this post was originally done on June 2, but for reasons I do not know,  WordPress made the original post disappear.  This explains why there was, apparently for serveral days, nothing shown on the June 2, post but the comments.  I am reposting the same article verbatim. 

We are rusty on this since it had been about a year since the prior post.  My apologies for the confusion.

The CSU funding…

This is the context for the half dozen or so articles and editorials, many under the byline of Chuck Williams, exposing McKoon for not being a team player, costing us local pork, generally not be well mannered, yada, yada. Williams, who is a friend of mine, did not sit down with McKoon, as I did to get…

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The rest of the story: Josh McKoon and “the Way the Game is Played”-Part Two (CSU Funding)



Note to Readers:  This is a second part to a post that ran week before last.  

Also readers will note that this post was originally done on June 2, but for reasons I do not know,  WordPress made the original post disappear.  This explains why there was, apparently for serveral days, nothing shown on the June 2, post but the comments.  I am reposting the same article verbatim. 

We are rusty on this since it had been about a year since the prior post.  My apologies for the confusion.

The CSU funding…

This is the context for the half dozen or so articles and editorials, many under the byline of Chuck Williams, exposing McKoon for not being a team player, costing us local pork, generally not be well mannered, yada, yada. Williams, who is a friend of mine, did not sit down with McKoon, as I did to get the whole story of that funding, and here it is.

The Ledger Reports that the loss of two appropriations, one for about two million to the Infantry Museum (to build a wall commemorating the war on global terror or something) and the other for about eight million for construction at CSU, were removed from the state budget to punish McKoon for being discourteous to House leadership and the Governor, one or the other or both.

First the way we allocate money to state higher educational institutions is a set up for bad politics.   Each session a large block of money is given, in equal portions, to each house, the House of Representatives and the Senate, to divvy up any way they want.  In this session, the House of Representatives got 50 million and the Senate got 50 million. No regard is given to the actual needs of the institutions, just to who has the most clout to bring the bacon home.

Prior to McKoon’s election CSU had not received any capital money in quite some time.   He insists that it was largely his efforts that got funding for renovations of Howard Hall and Arnold Hall, in prior sessions of the legislature.  Those projects are underway and but not ready for completion.  The last part of the funding that is in issue here is for the equipment, which will not be needed until the 2017 fiscal year, and therefore not needed for the current fiscal year.

Understand that the House and senate each generate a draft budget and then a conference committee of three senators and three house members. Under a screwy voting system a compromise must get the support of two senators and two house members.  The compromise is supposed to reconcile the differences.

The House version of the budget included $3 million for CSU renovations even though the money was not needed. McKoon believes that it was included with the intention that it would be withdrawn in conference since it was not needed, in order to blame him.

Now in any other context that might sound a little paranoid but here not so much. I suspect that is exactly what was intended, and my reason is simple: because, whatever the motivations, the money was unneeded, was withdrawn and he was blamed.  Look at our mast head: It isn’t paranoia if they really are out to get you.

McKoon made the point in quotes in subsequent articles that if the money was withdrawn to punish him, which is the implication, someone should take it to the GBI because it is criminal.

A lot of folks on social media and on comments to the LE articles thought that was a big joke. Problem is he is right.  To use legislative power to intimidate or punish anyone is a crime in Georgia, and has been for several years.

He should know since the School Board had him investigated for that allegation.

That failed by the way.

            Just the way the “game” is paid…

There is probably a lot of truth in that proposition that McKoon is being punished for not playing the game according to the rules. Problem is that the public is fed up with the game and want the rules changed.  The Queen of France was not cute  when she recommended pastries to the populace.  Not cute at all. There is a life lesson there.

There are two sets of competing narratives about that, one employed by those currently in power and one employed by a growing majority of the public, amassing outside the palace. .

Narrative One: Legislator’s main job is to “get stuff” versus her or his main job is to make good policy….

The narrative from the point of view of those in power is that a legislator should focus on making sure that the bacon is brought home. This is the source of the idea that Columbus benefits from the General Assembly because “Columbus Speaks with One Voice.”   Making good policy decisions, like preventing undocumented aliens from having drivers’ licenses is secondary, and should be left to others, generally not in office.

The narrative from the point of view of the public is that legislators should be trying to make laws that keep our system from failing and that it is failing because they are not.

My Bible says something like that there is no profit to a man who gains the whole world but loses his soul. The public is beginning to get that in demonstrable ways. Might be wise to realize that Bernie Sanders a self-avowed socialist is s serious contender for President of the United States of America.

Narrative two: Leadership in legislation is by listening to folks who are smarter than the public and know better what’s good for them versus “Like hell they do...”

The narrative from the point of view of the “establishment” is that long term policy decisions cannot be entrusted to the unwashed masses who are too busy trying to keep bread on the table to figure out the “Big Picture”.

Globalization is a good example: undoubtedly millions of Americans have seen their jobs go to South America and China but they can now buy Chinese made barbeque grills for a fraction of the cost if they were made here, for living wages.

The narrative from the point of view of the public is that this would be true if we had money to buy a barbeque grill and that, our leaders are letting our lifestyle slip away without giving us the power to slow it down or stop it.

My copy of the Declaration of Independence, in my top desk drawer under my grandfather’s .32 Smith and Wesson, my ownership of which the Constitution protects, my Constitution being what the .32 protects, says that all men (not just the powerful) are created equal and that government derives its authority from all of them  (not just the powerful).  The public is remembering that too.   Might be wise to realize that Donald Trump is on the cusp of becoming President by challenging the “power elite” and realizing the sense of disenfranchisement the public feels. Are those pitch forks I hear rattling at the gates?

Josh and those for whom the bell tolls. 

So, the Curmudgeon humbly submits, this discussion is not about empathy for someone who has been attacked for doing what he thought was right… although hats off to Representative Pezold for having the nerve to point  that out… it’s about all of us who should, and must, expect better from our government.  That, I think, eclipses the need to build a commemorative wall to fight against global terror or something or figure out whose lack of manners made it go away. We are listening to the bell toll and we know for whom it tolls.

(c) Fife M.  Whiteside

The rest of the story: Josh McKoon and the “Way the Game is Played”-Part One

Thoughtful Josh

Note to Readers: Yes it has been a long time. This blog is a recreational pursuit for me and over the last year work commitments eclipsed just about all of my recreational pursuits. A great deal of thought and research goes into these posts, and I try to “get it right”. My apologies for the silence but not for the effort to be accurate.  This is the first of two posts on this topic.  Look next week for the other. Have a great Memorial Day and think about those who gave up all their tomorrows for our today. This post is appropriate to that.  

The History…

Senator McKoon was elected to the Georgia state Senate in 2010. Affiliated with Common Cause, he ran on a campaign platform of ethics reform and transparency.

Legislative ethics has long been a problem in Georgia. The national, non-profit advocacy group

Center for Public Integrity, a Pulitzer prize winner, in 2012 rated the Georgia legislature 50 out of 50 states (the bottom) in terms of ethics and transparency.

McKoon actually meant it. He largely responsible for legislation passed in 2013,  which prohibits lobbyists’ giving to members of the General Assembly.  At all.  WLTZ referred to him as the ”man behind ethics reform.”

Didn’t make him a lot of friends. Georgia legislators are not highly paid, like Mexican policemen, and look to the perks they can pick up, like Mexican policemen, to make up the difference.   Taking away the ability of lobbyists to give unlimited gifts was not popular.

Among those unfriended by that move was House Speaker David Ralston, who the Atlanta Journal Constitution outed for taking a $17,000 lobbyist paid family vacation to the Netherlands and Germany in 2010.  The Curmudgeon notes that Ralston was a “have to” supporter  but our sources say that he was infuriated by being put in that position.

Ralston has also not been bashful in looking for ways to get around the law, and has angled, more than once, find loop holes to allow lobbyists to make indirect contributions to legislators or their campaigns.

Didn’t make McKoon any friends among lobbyists either, including some local ones, the name of one of whom keeps popping up among those who we talk to about this,  who like being able to give stuff to legislators, insuring that they have access and attention.  Not among lobbyists’ clients either, who like for their representatives to have access and attention. If you don’t get it now, if you read on you’ll figure out how important that is to understanding the story.

So we have to bear in mind that Senator McKoon went into the 2016 legislative session with some powerful folks, in and out of the legislature, who were not particularly happy with him.

The 2016 Session

With that context in mind when you look at this session in particular, which you see is a perfect storm of acrimony towards McKoon, some obvious and some not so obvious. 

            Religious freedom and not being liked in the Governor’s office or football franchisees.

A quick look at the national media would lead you to believe there is some sort of “Uniform Anti-Gay” legislation being passed around among Southern  legislatures.  This conjures up the image of legislators in North Carolina piling into a big bus to go to  a big “Anti Gay conference” and to attend workshops with titles like “ Look what we just did in (insert state name): you ought to try it and see if you can get away with it in your state.”

This really is not true. The legislation  passed in North Carolina is not the same as the bill vetoed in Georgia.  For example, the legislation in Georgia had nothing to do with restrooms or overruling municipal ordinances that forbid discrimination based on sexual persuasion.

National media is sensitive to anything that might be discriminatory to Gay people. So is the entertainment industry.   Big business fears criticism in national media or on late night T.V. shows so, regardless of how genuine the concern is, it fears anything that has that appearance.

Easy then for media (and business) to reach quick conclusions that the Georgia legislation did what is argued that the North Carolina legislation did.

The problem is that the majority of the public, at least in the Southeast, does not share that fear.

Hence the legislation making the rounds in the various state houses, supported by conservative, religious constituencies and not by business interests. Probably more folks in Georgia who would self identify as religious conservative than as football franchise owners.

McKoon sponsored legislation that would align Georgia law with federal law is setting the standard of proof for determining if a statute or city ordinance was unlawfully discriminatory. The federal legislation was passed in 1993, on a bi-partisan basis, required that any law which might burden free exercise of religious freedom, must be given strict scrutiny.

The Supreme Court held it inapplicable to states, but applicable to federal law. Several states have passed legislation to make the same rules applicable in those state.  Simple as that.

That rule might come into play where the state or a city passed a law or an ordinance which would penalized, criminally, an exercise of religious freedom, and arguably might apply where a business or church is criminally prosecuted for some action that it took as a matter of faith.   It does not apply to private litigation between private parties.

However, a Senate amendment was added to this statute to make it offensive to Gays, by a Gay friendly legislator, and this was supposed to be a “poison pill” to make it unpassable, and the effect was to take McKoon’s fairly innocuous bill and turn into something more problematic.

The House leadership then promoted a bill called the Pastor Protection Act which simply said that pastors could not be sued if they refused to perform Gay marriages. Even more  innocuous and not likely to offend anyone or put the Superbowl in peril.   The problem is that it was “feel good legislation”.  No one had ever heard of a pastor being subject to such a suit, and it’s not likely anyone would.   A solution in search of a problem.  Sounds good back home though.

McKoon calls it the “Politician Protection Act.” McKoon made that point from the well of the Senate and that put enough pressure on House leadership… the folks who don’t like him… to rewrite the House bill to include McKoon’s suggestion, and the “poison pill”,  therefore putting the Governor into the unenviable position of having to veto the bill or lose the Superbowl.  Didn’t make him any friends in the Governor’s office.

            Drivers’ licenses for illegals  and not being liked by the House and by farmers…

Much as been written about the English as official language bill McKoon sponsored.   Not liked by the Latino community, but supported by others and not particularly troublesome to business interests,  but there is another immigration legislation that is more significant and troublesome.

There are 22,000 undocumented immigrants who have been (knowingly) granted Georgia drivers licenses. It has been established that one good way to discourage the undocumented from coming to a given state is to deny them state licensensure ( barbers, nurses, drivers).  McKoon sponsored a bill to stop that.

While the average Georgian might think that’s a pretty good idea… significantly cheaper than building a wall and making Mexico pay for it… some folks didn’t. Business and agricultural interests (and their lobbyists) didn’t like it a bit.  How, after all, would the undocumented get to the law care service where they are being paid (off the books) sub-minimum wages?  How would they get to the fields to pick peaches for which they are being paid slave wages?

This bill was let die in committee in the House, but some folks over there sure didn’t like it.   To the extent anyone, other than Curmudgeon readers, knew about it it was embarrassing.  Add a few more enemies in the House

And trouble in the Fountain City too…not being liked at the government center.

For as long as I can remember going back before Frank Martin was mayor there were various efforts to undo the tax freeze. The freeze if you remember is provision that locks the value of your residential property at the value you paid for it so that the Consolidated Government can’t do a backhanded tax raise by raising the value of your property.

It’s been to the ballot box several times and in Court at least once. Discussion of the history of all that is outside the scope of this post but there is a long and detailed history that could be told.

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson wants to have the freeze lifted. Her idea is to lift the freeze but at the same time increase the homestead exemption so that, at least initially, it would be revenue neutral.  A lot of very influential local people support her on that.

That would have to be voted on by the public. The legislature has to vote to put the question to the voters.   There was a false start on the legislation to put it on the ballot, and a redraft of the local bill was attempted.  The rules concerning how local bills get submitted and passed are also outside the scope of the post, but suffice it to say that generally, the whole local  delegation should support the bill.

McKoon did not.   In his view, and in the view of other lawyers too, the redrafted bill was flawed in a specific way.   It did not provide that if one part of the change (lift freeze or raise exemption) was successfully challenged in Court then the whole change is void.

Anyone, for example someone thinking that the City should get more money, could challenge the change. The city, which might want to get more money, would then defend the challenge, as vigorously or not vigorously as it wants.

The result is that the voters could vote up a tax freeze elimination and exemption increase thinking they will not have a tax raise, and end up with a tax freeze elimination and no exemption increase. McKoon was not keen on that idea and, alone with the delegation, voted it down.

Don’t guess that ingratiated him city hall and to the members of the local delegation, including Representative Smith, who was a city council member and who seems to have led the charge to place blame on McKoon for loss of funding for CSU.


Next:  C.S.U. funding and some thoughts about how government should work, and why the public is fed up that it doesn’t.

Paying for the SPLOST

 Preliminary note: why anyone cares is a mystery to me but a lot of people have asked if I do or do not support the SPLOST. Neither is true. As Mac Collins once said about the failed 1994 MCSD bond referendum, I have friends who are for it and friends who are against it, and I am for my friends.

I do believe that this is the first sales tax of the five that have been put to the voters where I thought voting no is a rational position.  The difference here is the school district’s refusal to put its operating issues in a priority position. 

The Good Lord  and I know how I voted.  I am not telling and I don’t think the Good Lord  is either. Take that any way you want.

Paying the Cost…

This was an expensive campaign. Vote Yes campaign’s official reports show $116,210 in funds raised. The reports are below.

#1 20150303140042602

# 1A Yes2Kids_Amen030215

#2 Yes4Kids021115

#3 Yes2Kids_2Day030515

#4 Yes2Kids_2D030615

#5 Yes2Kids_2D031115

This is not a grass roots campaign.

Of the $116,210 raised only $2,600 came from small contributions. That’s about 2 percent. Most of the money came from business interests. The Synovus/CB&T/TSYS/W.C. Bradley business interests, frequently linked together because of common stock ownership and history, raised $50,500, or about 40% of the money raised.

More to the fact that this is not a “grass roots’ campaign is the support provided by City fathers or mothers. Mayor Teresa Tomlinson has enthusiastically endorsed the Vote Yes campaign and her husband Wade “Trip” Tomlinson was the first major donor, at $1000. So have other city counselors, such as Judy Thomas. More importantly the legendary selective enforcement of sign placement rules is at work for Vote Yes, with seemingly more yard signs on the right of way and on other public property than in actual yards. FN/1

My more cynical and suspicious readers insist that the heavy business civic and business support is about getting something back from the school system.

The city has been more and more involved in doing business with the school district, with real estate swaps and the like, generally with the City coming out on the good end of the transactions, but the outcome of the election would not impact that trend.

CB&T has the banking business of the school district and has had it since April,2011, without current bid, but that is a relatively small benefit to the bank. Also, it is true that Synovus tried to get the underwriting on the last SPLOST funded bond, in December, 2009, which is a lot of money, but it failed to get that business. Georgia Power, a $5000.00 donor, also has to compete for power services. I doubt that potential individual corporate benefit has anything or much to do with support, although generosity in getting the SPLOST passed could impact future opportunities.

General economic development certainly does have something to do with city and business community support. A good bit of the money raised by the SPLOST could be spent locally and that does matter to business people. If that is the incentive then education becomes just a bi-product of the real point of the tax which is to pump money into the local economy and that may be true here. That may not be such a bad thing.

The prior (2008) SPLOST campaign was barely a grass roots campaign. The small contributions amounted to about 7 percent of the contribution of $60,349 raised by the same time in the campaign. Three times as much as here but still not a lot. Interestingly, vendors and potential vendors other than CB&T, which does the school district’s banking business, were a little more represented in that SPLOST. Reports are below.

#1 NewDayCampaign0909

#2 NewDayC1209

The “New Day” School System

The 2008 campaign too had a name. It was The New Day campaign, and it was managed by Frank Myers. The same Frank Myers who, as a school board member, is now working overtime to defeat the current Vote Yes Campaign.

Why was it “The New Day” campaign? Because in 2009 the public was furious with the school district for a series of decisions that seemed arrogant and out of touch with the public. The main one was the decision to use a back door financing technique to put the school district in debt to build an administration building which cost about double what it was promised to cost.

The New Day was supposed to be one in which the Board changes its ways and would force the school district to be more open, accountable, and responsive to the Public. It was the “New Day” because they were admitting they had misbehaved and would do better. Myers who understood how angry and disaffected the public was, created that concept.

He, and others less high profile activists, were also involved in the 2010 and 2012 Board elections where new “reform oriented” board members Beth Harris and Athavia Senior were elected.

So how has that worked out for him? Not at all, it seems. Both Harris supported the return of Dr. Phillips, who engineered the administration building deal, and Senior, voted to support him in the selection of the law firm, and  perhaps as a reward for that, had her daughter employed with the school district, without the required public disclosure.

When it became apparent that the Board had failed to realize the promise of The New Day, and after it had attacked him for reminding them of that promises, he decided to run for the school board and get it fixed. He, and fellow reformer, John Thomas got elected and are demanding reform before they will co-operate in getting the District more money.

What Myers and Thomas may only now be realizing is that they are taking on the culture of a very large and very intransigent organization, an organization that thinks its culture is just fine the way it is. There are good parts to that culture and I understand that, but that does not excuse keeping the bad parts. What are they?

          Lack of Candor with the Public

Years ago, when the administration under Dr. John Phillips brought a proposal to the table to make a policy change which would have required teachers to have finger print tests, a state law requirement, but more than what was required by state law. I asked why we would do that. Another very high level administrator was explaining: “Mr. Whiteside, we have some sound scientific studies that show that a person’s finger prints will change over time.” With a straight face.

I thought about that one night last week when I talked to a Northside High student. Dr. David  Lewis, the superintendent,  has said, repeatedly, that cafeteria over crowding had created chronic problems at Northside, requiring an expansion to the cafeteria. Dr. Lewis explained, continuing, that students had to eat outside sometimes because of the over crowding. What I learned, from the student, was that the number of lunch periods had been cut from 5 to 4 resulting in the overcrowding. Dr. Lewis did not tell us that.

What Dr. Lewis told us was accurate but it was not truthful. I would guess that the idea was to accommodate the reduction in the number of lunch periods, perhaps for budgeting reasons. But whatever the reason Dr. Lewis did not feel we should know.

There are many examples, beyond the scope of this post. The lack of candor with the Board (and the public) here has always been a problem always but over time it has grown exponentially. When I sit in a board meeting, which is seldom, I find myself doubting, with good reason, every word that is said, and still after all these years, occasionally picking up on something I know to be an absolute lie.

        Coercion and intimidation

I have written about this in an earlier post, and could offer up many examples, but here are a few.

First, the obvious, the threats of “ethics charges” against Board Members John Thomas and Frank Myers for not supporting the Board in it’s non-campaign for the SPLOST.

Second, the not so obvious, examples of teachers called on the carpet for talking to Board members or press about problems in their schools. I know of several examples involving people who are still employed and whose privacy must be protected.

Third, the practice, in this SPLOST campaign,  of ordering educators to watch videos which are in effect campaign material. This has been reported confidentially by Curmudgeon readers and written about in the Ledger Enquirer. This is commonplace in public education. The cheating scandal in the Atlanta Public School system, under Dr. Beverly Hall, who recently died while her racketeering charges were still pending, is a case study for what happens when teachers are forced to shut up. The “climate of fear” was cited as a fundamental cause of the cheating scheme. This is a quote from the Report of the Governor’s Special Investigators, June 30, 2011, at page 364-365:

“Dr. Hall and her top staff created a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation, which was usually enforced on principals and teachers by some of the SRT executive directors. Many witnesses said that after reporting cheating, or some other misconduct, they became the subject of an investigation and were disciplined. This culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation has infested the district, allowing cheating—at all levels—to go unchecked for years. Those who dared to report misconduct in the district were held in contempt and punished.”

The same “culture of fear” lives at MCSD and probably at most large school districts in Georgia. That does not justify it.

       Manipulation of processes to cut the board (public) out of the decision making..

Board meetings are conducted regularly once a month, with at least a weeks notice to the public of the agenda, and in front of the television cameras. They also allow for public comment. All this is designed to make sure the public is included in the process. However, where an “emergency” it is possible to conduct a “called” meeting on very short, essentially no notice. Called meetings are not televised and there is no public comment allowed. Called board meetings quit being about “emergencies” a long time ago and started to be about concealing controversial decisions from the public.

There are many examples from years past. The decision for the school district to go into debt without tax payer approval and against prior commitments to the public to buy the administration building at twice its original promised cost is the most famous one.

More recently, in Dr. Phillips third tenure as Superintendent, the Board, with some or all members not knowing what the called meeting was about, terminated the school district’s 20 year plus commitment to neighborhood schools by dismantling Edgewood and busing neighborhood children to other schools.

Parents, for example those living across the street from the school, knew absolutely nothing of it and found out about it when they read it in the paper. By doing business in called meetings the superintendent denies the public the right to complain to board members, petition for redress of grievance. This is thoughtful. They fear that if the public knows about a difficult decision they may persuade board members to vote independently.

Council by comparison has a first reading on every agenda item to insure that the public has at least one opportunity to question the item and contact councilors.

Other examples include the use of “consensus decisions” in closed meeting to allow board members to make decisions without having to do so in public, such as the decision to try to institute criminal prosecutions against Myers and sitting state Senator Josh McKoon. Another is the selective distribution of information to some “trusted” board members and not to others, No-bid contracting is a whole different, longer story.

The “No New Day School System ” A culture of contempt?

It’s tempting to see the unchanged “No New Day” school system culture as just a culture of contempt.

It’s really not. Administrators do not see themselves as contemptuous of the public when they are not truthful to them, or when they threaten them, or when they manipulate them.

Their reasoning is much more complex than that. To understand that starts with a simple analogy. I recently asked a former board member if he lied to his children. Of course he said he did not. I asked him if things were pretty boring around his house at Christmas (without Santa Claus), at Easter (without the Bunny), or when teeth fell out without the fairy. He chucked and said that did not count.

This is the point. Administrators do not necessarily hold the public in contempt. They just do not believe their opinions matter. They consider themselves experts on what the school district needs and to be held accountable to the public, they believe would impair their ability to educate children. For them accountability is an abstract concept and does not apply to them.

They do not see that as arrogance. They operate from a position of what they consider to be superior wisdom to the public, which, like a parent is excused at Christmas for validating Santa, they are excused from treating the public as relevant decision makers. They were thinking that way, by the way when they built two high schools on an open classroom concept and adopted the 4 period block, both now understood to be epic blunders.

And on. “We do not ‘bully’ them, but we do punish them (students, the teachers, the public, etc) when they stray. It’s for their own good.”

And on ” Why should we have to explain to them (the public) what we are doing. They are not entitled to an explanation any more than a child is entitled to an explanation for why he can’t have a pony?”

Public Attitude Towards How Public Schools operate…

From the point of view of an average voter, this attitude is pretty hard to defend, particularly here where we have a Superintendent, whose qualification for managing a quarter billion dollar budget stem from having been a band director, being dismissive of a Certified Public Accountant and IRS audit agent (John Thomas).

But from the point of view of the average Superintendent, the culture of the organization, one which we might consider contemptuous and corrupt, is appropriate and efficient. It is the next best thing to eliminating school boards and the need for any public involvement with how to spend public money. Accountable to no one as accountability is not necessary. They have the answers, like open class rooms or block scheduling.

I see this as the Omnipotent Administrator, Irrelevant Public model of governance. This is how Dr. Hall operated as Superintendent for the Atlanta Public Schools, when cheating was rampart. Dr. Hall was the darling of the Atlanta business community primarily because she listened to them, often more than she listened to her board, and she “created” improvement, whether it was there or not. Atlanta looked good and anyone who cared that it was not real was just misinformed.

As has been well documented in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, business people defended Dr. Hall when she got caught, and continued to defend her really to the point of the irrational. They liked her “non-political style” and the fact that she did not let her board “micro manage”, like for example telling her that erasers are not the key to student achievement.

You see this attitude, that the Superintendent is Omnipotent, and the Public Irrelevant, played out pretty plainly in the television ads bought by the Vote Yes campaign.

Two of the ads feature three of the last four superintendents, including Dr. Phillips who, as an “apolitical” and “CEO type leader”, brought the whole concept of Public Irrelevance to MCSD. All are shot with the backdrop of the new Carver High.  This is  something that had to have been the product of some thought.

One ad implies that Superintendents are accountable to the public and have been for “more than twenty years,” presumably a reference to the creation of an elected school board, an implication that cannot be defended because the Superintendent is not elected by anyone, and the Board, which is elected, does not consider Superintendents accountable to them. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have heard a board member talk about “serving under” a superintendent, an inversion of the roles.

Board members are omitted from all the ads, I presume, to deliver the message that Thomas and Myers, and the rest of the board, are irrelevant. Perhaps, intentionally, the Vote Yes Campaign has turned the referendum on one about whether the Superintendent needs to be held accountable to anyone and whether the Board (Thomas/Myers) have any obligation or right to hold him accountable.

Dr Lewis, who is unquestionably sincere in his efforts to educate children, has made it clear that he is satisfied with the way the school system operates and is as indifferent to the public or their concerns. His supporters obviously agree with him.

Years ago, as we began to move to where we are, I wrote an OP Ed. in the Ledger Enquirer and spoke at lunch clubs warning about the dangers of the emerging Irrelevant  Public approach  to governance. That angered a lot of business types who thought then that keeping the public out of the process was a pretty good idea. One, I am told, walked out of one of those speeches. He is now major contributors to the $116,000 plus raised to sell the SPLOST. That’s not just anecdotal and it is not coincidental.

The issue gets to be, not whether the SPLOST is a good idea, whether the school district should clean up its finances before it asks for a SPLOST, or whether Board members Myers’ and Thomas’s opinions matter but whether, and how well, the public will tolerate being cut out of the governance of the schools for which it pays.

Put another way, given seemingly unlimited resources to campaign with, will and how well can Dr. Lewis, and his administrators, and local civic leadership, take the Public out of Public Education. What we are waiting for now is what the public thinks. That’s next week’s question and the next post from the Curmudgeon.

Correction:  a sharp reader pointed out that I had got the election dates wrong for Harris and Senior.  Harris was elected in 2010.  Senior was elected in 2012.  Harris did participate in bringing Phillips back as superintendent in 2012 but Senior could not since she was not on the board when he returned.  She did support him in the controversial re-appointment of the law firm.  The corrections are in the text.  I hope other readers will keep me straight on the facts.

Additional Correction:  another sharp reader pointed out that the campaign spots appear to have been shot if front of the new Carver High building and not the administration building.  The correction is in the text.  Again I hope readers will keep me straight on the facts.

(c) Fife M. Whiteside, all rights reserved

FN/1 Here is a gallery of yard signs put down and left down on public property. The marina…

Small 100_1098

The airport Small 100_1066

Bus stops Small 100_1065

Public Parks Small 100_1061

Street medians

small 100_1063

Selling the SPLOST…

The SPLOST vote now just over a week away… mark your calendars for March 17 and not just for St. Patrick’s Day…the campaigns go into the home stretch. In this and the next post the Curmudgeon looks at how the tax is being sold and how it is being attacked.

The project list

Under Georgia law, Dr. Lewis’ Sales Tax (SPLOST) must state in general terms how the extra percent of sales tax (taking us to 8 percent) is to be spent. Litigation has resulted in Court opinions which make the campaign promises binding as well. So what we are told the money will be used for is important. This is the “project list.”

In the last three SPLOST elections different means have been used to arrive at what the project list would be. In the 1997 SPLOST, the project list had to include ten new schools (such as for example Northside High) in order to capture state matching funds.

The other items were included after involvement from the Board and the public. There were public forums before the Board voted on the project list. Board members met with the faculty at the schools in their districts and heard what the staff said was needed. There were multiple meetings between the Board and the Administration to refine the list. The list was complete when the Board voted on it, and the public knew at that time what was on the table.

Not so much with the current SPLOST which was developed pretty much entirely by Lewis and his staff. FN/1. A copy of the ballot question which satisfies the minimum legal requirement for describing the project list is below. A copy of the Power Point presentation giving the details with cost is below.  Time and space limitations prevent the Curmudgeon from discussing each item. A few are discussed below. The Ledger Enquirer’s coverage of the project list, by Mark Rice, is excellent and should be read for more information.

Legal Notice for SPLOST

2015 SPLOST Powerpoint

How the project list is presented…

In prior campaigns the Board and the Superintendent were heavily involved in presenting the projects to the public. They were acknowledged campaigners and that bothered almost no one. In this SPLOST the MCSD has taken the position that the Superintendent cannot campaign.

Look at the Forum Q&A at Question 9.

2015 SPLOST Questions Set 1

The Superintendent has instead done a number of “informational” forums. The Curmudgeon attended three, and so bases observations below from that.

Lewis discussed the project lists and how they benefit the public, and thus why the public should vote for them, which seems a lot campaigning to me.

Written questions, only, were taken from the audience. There was no follow up allowd and no dialogue with Lewis. When follow up was attempted it was quickly shut down. There were three to five armed, police or security officers at each forum, to make sure that there was no agreement about that. I felt like I was in a decade about 80 years ago and a few thousand miles to the east. Not a good feeling.

The questions were read anonymously which left open the possibility of the use of questions prepared by the school district, something else that bothered me. The answers along with heavily edited responses were posted on the school district website. The questions and answers taken from the MCSD website are below.

As reported in the LE, there were maybe 50 to 70 people at each but I still recognize a lot of faces from my time on the Board, and at least half the attendees at each meeting were staff, most of whom, I would guess, were there on their own accord. There were 11 forums.

Having been involved heavily in three SPOST campaigns it is very hard for me to distinguish these forums from the campaign events. The explanation that the Superintendent and Board members cannot campaign does not hold water because in the past they have, although not with the free use of school district facilities and equipment, which were provided for these forums. In fact, the campaigning guidelines published by MCSD for employees state that the Superintendent and Board can campaign for the SPLOST. See below, at page 2 of the document.

SPLOST dos and donts 2-24-15

Also, Lewis attended a meeting of the local Democratic Party chapter and provided the same presentation as at the forums. This meeting  is available on YouTube, at least till it is removed, and Lewis  did take oral questions from the audience, which he refused to do at the forums.  The link is (Cut and Paste if the link below fails to work).  The chapter voted to endorse the sales tax at that meeting. Conversely, the Yes campaign, although invited, declined to provide a speaker for the scheduled meeting of the local Republican Party, later this week. FN/2 Hard to see this as anything but political.

You Tube Video link:

The Curmudgeon expects, but does not know, that the real reasons for taking the position that Lewis cannot campaign are two. The school district could contribute the use of the school buildings for the forums, the use of the website for the campaign information, and the cost of security officers, without paying for it, one of several transfers of wealth from public coffers to the campaign, to be discussed later. Also, Lewis could avoid any two way dialogue, debate, on the project list, which seems to be important to him.  As the Vote Yes campaign tv spots say:  we shouldn’t let questions get in the way of a Yes vote.

What’s on the project list…

And why is that important? Let’s take a look at the projects and other inducements for a Vote Yes. Remember there are other special interest items, the weight rooms for example, for which space does not permit discussion. See above.

The carrots…


The Performing Arts Academy…

The Arts school is a carrot that has some age on it. Originally evolving from discussions between the Superintendent and the Board Members in the lead up to the 2003 SPLOST it was included in that SPLOST with a small allocation of “seed money” to which it was hoped private funding might someday be added to build the school. It was included in the 2009 SPLOST with a much higher amount, about $16 Million, and promised in that project list. See below.

2009 SPLOST priority_presentation09

Prior to 2009, several good sized schools had been built for less money. Note that Northside was build for only $14.50 Million just a few years before.

By 2012, the price tag had escalated to about $30 Million, just as the costs of other building projects were increasing dramatically. In the current project list another $6 Million is added. At every step, over the last 12 years, the construction was right around the corner. Note that a child entering school when the promise was first made is now out of school without ever having had the opportunity to use the school.

At the October, 2014 workshop report on the 2009 SPLOST projects a report was rendered that showed nothing spent or committed on the Academy at that time. See below. Dr. Lewis insists ground will be broken this year.  Hope so, or sooner or later that carrot will rot, before anyone gets to eat it.

2009 SPLOST Update October 2014 meeting

Art patrons are a patient lot, and they do vote.

A new Spencer….

No doubt about that one. School needs to be replaced or shut and the students reassigned. There were problems from the start and owing to the tendency of the school district not to hold contractors to account for construction problems, it has never been fixed.

However, the price tag, $56 Million is staggering for a small school, and owing to the use of the really not competitive CMR method of contracting, that, or more, will almost certainly be the final price tag. To put that in perspective, note the following:

(a) that’s almost $62,000 per student based on the 906 student body population as reported by the Governor’s office of Student Achievement for last school year (as compared to the 1405 student body population of Northside, for last school year;

Student Counts 13-14

(b) in the first SPLOST, 1997, where the Board leveraged state matching funds determined by growth, and was engaged and pro-active, in holding the line on costs, the school district built ten schools, using only part of the total $184 million, in revenue generated in that SPLOST (See Below);


( c) in that SPLOST, there was one elementary schools that cost less than $5 million and the most expensive school was Northside High at less than less than $14.5 million, and while admittedly that has been a number of years, it is hard to imagine that construction costs for adequate (but not palatial) schools has increased that much (see above);

(d) in the last 2009, SPLOST Superintendent Andrews included $45.3 million, for a new Carver, an amount as I reported in a blog I wrote for Common Cause at that time, which was 64% higher than published per foot standard costs for schools in the Southeast (from the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities) for that time period, which indicated $27.5 million for a comparable building. Spencer is a quarter again more than Carver.

However, Green Wavers are a loyal and proud lot, and should be, and they do vote.

Accommodations for autistic students

The project list includes $3.5 million for enhancements to existing schools to provide for the special needs of autistic students. The proposal is to move children to three wings, Elementary, Middle, High School, as dedicated facilities in three schools for the autistic.

According to the Georgia Department of Education there are 369 Autism Spectrum children in MCSD, probably not spread evenly over all grades. This compares with 1073 children with Specific Learning Disabilities, who are not being promised special accommodations. Many autism parents will prefer to have their children “mainstreamed”, served in regular classrooms. It is not clear how much the new wings will be used.

Let me carefully note  that children on the Autism spectrum present far greater challenges than almost any other group of special needs children, and the school district has in the past not treated those children with the care they deserved. Extraordinary spending now may not make that right and it may be a matter of too much too late.   FN/3.

However, it is clear that parents of autistic children are extremely motivated, and they do vote.

The Sticks

But the campaign is not just about carefully thought out carrots. There are some sticks too.


Pay raises or cuts…a message for the teachers

Lewis is not bashful to point out that the items on the project list that are not “carrot” items but are nuts and bolts type items like bus replacement, roof repairs and replacing outdated computers, would free up money from the general operating budget for other things.

One might be teacher raises or avoiding cuts. The fact that teachers have not had raises in many years has come up repeatedly. The schools district’s “information” providing has been directed to teachers in particular, with some privately grousing to the Curmudgeon about being ordered to watch videos which, like the “information forums”, are not much distinguishable from campaign ads. They, and I, view this as like requiring teachers who have enough to do already to watch a 15 minute long campaign presentation, paid for with tax money.

The inference is clearly that a Vote No means no teacher pay raises and could mean cuts. . Teachers have been warned and they vote.

Property tax increases….a message for property owners…

Same reasoning holds true for anyone who owns their home. MCSD has hovered at or near a mill and a half under it’s property tax limit for many years. FN/4. Lewis has hinted that serious consideration would be given to a property tax rate hike. The board would have to vote on this, but so far the board has not failed to approve any request made by Lewis. This would be a first if they say no. This would generate less than $7 Million a year, about a quarter of the amount annually generated by the sales tax, but Lewis knows that this community hates property taxes, for reasons too lengthy to discuss.

So property tax payers have been warned. They vote too.

Implied threats of retaliation…a message to about everyone

See the last edition of the Curmudgeon for discussion of that. It is clear that the school district, and the SPLOST supporters, do not take kindly to opposition. If you are an employee or especially a Board member, a parent, or are employed by one of the supporters, you have been warned too. I guess that gets the rest of us, pretty much.

Next Edition: The Best Sales Tax Money Can Buy….

FN/1 Well not exactly. Dr. Lewis has indicated he visited privately with (unnamed) community leaders and educators before he developed his project list. I guess you could say that’s public input but the idea of having information gathering forums as had previously been done was not on anyone’s radar. Did they ask your opinion? They didn’t ask mine.

FN/2 Local Republicans did not reach out to Lewis, since they believed what they were told that Lewis could not campaign. The reached out to the campaign which declined to send a representative.  Former school board member Cathy Williams agreed to appear as a supporter.

FN/3 The link to Georgia DOE statistics of special needs students in Muscogee County is (Cut and paste to your browser if the link below fails). Note you will have to select last year’s data and then Muscogee County.

Special Needs Students for Muscogee County

FN/4 A mil is a tenth of a percent and is the way property tax rates are expressed. 25 mils tax rate means that a property is taxed at a quarter of a percent of its value. A $100,000 property is ten taxed at $250.

(c) Fife M. Whiteside, All rights reserved

Shutting up the Opposition: Targeting Board Members and Teachers

 You can’t tell me what to do: you already elected me!

(Knowing the back story….)

I start this with an up front qualification: I try to be unbiased about what I write here. I do like Joe Friday and do just the facts (‘mam).  This does not apply to this post.  The attacks on Myers and Thomas are familiar to me. In the waning years of my Board service I too was attacked,  publically and privately, for disagreeing with the Board and the Superintendent. Some attacks were deeply personal in ways the public never knew. Take note as you read this.

A couple of years ago the school board attempted to prosecute Frank Myers, now one of their members,  and a sitting State Senator, Josh McKoon,  over several private conversations Myers and McKoon had with several board members.  While this was pursued as a board action, not all board members agreed.  They never had  an opportunity to make their dissent of record, since the decision was made in secret.

Myers and McKoon had supported several board members as candidates and they attempted to influence those members to support an effort to force competitive bidding for the school district’s law firm.  Those board members say that they were threatened.   To my knowledge they never said there was any physical threat, just promise of adverse political action.

I do not understand how that conversation, without a physical threat,  could be  a crime.  If it were, the United States would have to take Rhode Island by eminent  domain to  establish a penal colony for  thousands lobbyists and lawyers who make trying to influence legislators, by persuasion or by coercion, a profession. The GBI didn’t understand it either and dismissed the matter as specious.

Arriving at that conclusion cost hundreds of  thousands of dollars in my tax money (paid to the law firm Myers and McKoon tried to make compete for the MCSD business and expended with the GBI to conduct the investigation)  and substantial legal costs and angst  for Myers and McKoon, and their families. Myers and McKoon probably could have sued for malicious prosecution.  They did not. Instead, Myers chose to run for the seat of and defeat one of the incumbents who helped level those charges.

There have been few  actions of local government, in my 62 years,  that I truly resent but  this one, the  use of my tax dollars, which should have been used to educate children,  to fund a private vendetta, ultimately a frivolous one, conducted by petulant school board members, against Myers and McKoon, is.      It was ungracious and classless,  since Myers and McKoon  had helped the Board pass its prior successful,  sales tax.  It was the most completely boneheaded decision I know of in local government.  That says a lot.

Only crooks disagree with us!

(Acknowledging  the threat…)

Myers, not the criminal defendant the Board tried to make him,  but the Board member which the public did make  him, has formed the basis of the Vote No opposition to the Board’s proposed sales tax.  Myers, and Board ally, John Thomas, argue that the school district should be required to clean up its finances first before it asks for more money.  This is a reasonable position, since without the incentive of the sales tax the clean up may never occur.

Having a Board member oppose a referendum is not without precedent. In 1994, the Board tried to pass a property tax bond for about $40,000,000.  The opposition for the bond referendum included a Board member, Barbara Pierce, as an active participant.  The bond failed three to one.

We resented Pierce’s opposition, but what we did not do was try to retaliate against her for opposing the bond.  FN1.  I like to think we had more class than that.

Yet this seems to be exactly what the current Board is lining up to do to Myers and Thomas. My sources suggest that preparations (and legal fees) are already rolling  for such another attack on Myers and a fresh attack on Thomas,  after the referendum.  Apparently they do not have more class than that.

At the first of Dr. Lewis’ forums, the following question and answer were made and given:

Isn’t it illegal/unethical for board members to campaign against the passage of the SPLOST after it was approved by the school board? The Georgia School Board Association and Georgia State ethics do address this issue as being unethical. Please refer to” 

This echoed comments by Dr. Lewis and Board Chair Rob Varner in other contexts. No question that a threat is being made.

Besides you can’t disagree with us!  We are right!

(Looking up what the law really is…)

There is a background here. The school board for Clayton County (where Hartsfield Airport is located and one of the most property tax rich districts in the state) became a poster child for bad boardsmanship, with misconduct not just limited to micro-managing but running to financial issues involving school district resources.  SACS, the accrediting agency, pulled their accreditation.

As a result of that, the General Assembly passed legislation in 2010 to require school districts to adopt ethics policies.  The General Assembly did not prescribe a form for an ethics policy but delegated that responsibility to the State  Board of Education.  The State  Board of Education adopted a model policy.  This is a Model Policy and school districts are free to vary it so it does not have, as the question quoted above suggests, the power of the law.

The model  policy, descriptor BH, at”Domain” V,  at item 7, provides that Board members should  “Express opinions before votes are cast, but after the Board vote, abide by and support all majority decisions of the Board.”  This is central to the Board’s assertion that dissent is unethical.

I spoke at length with attorneys at the DOE and they indicated that it was not the intent of the DOE to create a method for school boards to gag their members when they disagree with them.  It was directed to kind of bad behavior that resulted in Cherokee County school board member Kelly Marlow’s sanction for the way she opposed  her superintendent and  board on the issue of Common Core.

Of course the facts are pretty different: Marlow falsely accused the Cherokee Superintendent of trying to kill her and she was convicted of false report for doing so. Her conviction is on appeal.   While he might have thought about it, to my knowledge, no one has said Dr. Lewis has tried to kill Myers or Thomas.  I am not thinking that anything like that happened anymore than that a switch blade came out to threaten Wells or Harris with. That policy really does not apply here.

GSBA published a brochure when repeated the  language in the model code, and this is the basis for the idea that the GSBA considers dissent to be unethical. This isn’t what the brochure says or means.   Even if the GSBA did think dissent was unethical it would not have the force of law.

Board members have also stated that dissent violates the oath taken by board members because they are sworn to observe the local board’s ethics code.  They would turn the Board oath into a “loyalty oath”..  It is not.  A copy of the oath, which is public record,  is attached and there is not one word in that document about swearing to uphold the Board’s ethics code or swearing allegiance to the Board.

School Board Oath

So it circles back to the fact the “law” that the Board says Myers and Thomas violated is not the law. The suggestion that Myers and Thomas broke the law is more than a little disingenuous.   The “law”  the Board says they violated is just a board policy.  Put another way, the Board says  dissent is unethical because the Board says dissent is unethical.


We don’t care what the Constitution says!

(Standing  at the Pettus Bridge with John Cloud and the Alabama State Police….)

What is in the Board oath is a pledge to uphold the Constitution of the United States. This is where this discussion gets really interesting.

The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the right of every citizen to speak freely on matters of public concern, and nothing in State law, State Board of Education regulations, or local policy could possibly trump the Board members’ constitutional rights.

While the act of criticizing the Board may not violate the oath, the act of trying to bar criticism probably does.  Take note Board members that violating your oath could set you up for your own criminal charges and for recall.

In Bond v. Floyd, 385 U.S. 116, 87 S.Ct. 339, 17 L.Ed.2d 235 (1966), the United States Supreme Court was presented with a claim brought by Julian Bond against “Sloppy Floyd,” concerning Bond’s participation in the Georgia General Assembly. Bond a central character in Selma, which was about the Voting Rights Act, was elected to the General Assembly as a result of its passage.  Bond had made certain statements which were highly critical of the United States Vietnam War effort.  Floyd, and other legislators, acted to have him excluded from the Georgia General Assembly.  Writing from the Court, Justice Warren wrote as follows:

            “The interest of the public in hearing all sides of a public issue is hardly  advanced by extending more protection to private critics than to legislators.   Legislators have an obligation to take positions on controversial political questions so that their constituents can be fully informed by them, and be better able to assess their qualification for office; also, so they may be represented in governmental debates by the persons they have elected to represent them.  We, therefore, hold that the disqualification of Bond from membership in the Georgia House because of his statements violated Bond’s right of free expression under the First Amendment.” 

385 U.S. at 136-137.  Bond v. Floyd is based, primarily, on an earlier case involving an attack by elected officials on an  elected sheriff, who was critical of county government.  See, Wood v. Georgia, 370 U.S. 375, 82 S.Ct. 1364, 8 L.Ed.2d 569 (1962).

Bond was African American and the reality is the other White members of the General Assembly just didn’t like him… maybe he had tried to coerce them into passing legislation they didn’t like… and since they couldn’t make out a GBI case for his threatening them they would just exclude on ethical grounds  despite the fact that the voters elected him.  That does sound familiar doesn’t it…

In a case where the facts are remarkably like those here, In Melville v. Town of Adams, 9 F.Supp.3d 77 (D. Mass. 2014), a town selectman brought suit against other town selectmen based on their effort to restrict his comments to town employees about town business.   In Melville, the selectman was a plaintiff in a civil case seeking damages against other selectmen and the city.  Whether this would apply would depend on how the Board frames its attack.

If the Board is in a mood to waste more  taxpayer dollars I couldn’t imagine a better way for them to do so is to launch off in another Quixotic attack on Myers and a fresh attack onThomas  and this time the cost might include  money paid out in damages to Myers and Thomas, for violating their civil rights. Myers passed up the opportunity to sue the first time.  He will not likely this time.

Now shut up or we will spank you to the very last dollar of your tax money!

(Using your  money to make their  point…)

So this comes down to two things. The board wants  to gag members who disagree with the majority.  The Board is delighted  to spend your money to shut the dissenting members  up.   I asked each member of the board how they could explain doing this, and I am waiting for the first on the record reply.

So why should anyone besides Myers and Thomas  care? There are three good, practical  reasons.

First, dissent makes for better decisions.  The mere fact that Myers and Thomas have asserted the position that the school district should get its financial house in order before it asks for more money puts those issues on the table and, particularly if the sales tax fails, they may actually get addressed. That has a dollar and sense value. Their dissent works for you.

Second, tolerating dissent promotes better working relationships.  The disagreement between Myers/Thomas and the Board does not belong to them individually.  It belongs to all of us, because it affects how well the Board functions. Some board members, like Chief John Cloud at the foot of the Pettus Bridge, in Selma, foolishly believe that if you beat them up enough they will learn to stay in their place.   That did not work in Selma and it didn’t work with me and it won’t work with Myer and Thomas.

Third, if  you work for the school district, as 5000 or so local folks do, or if  you have a spouse or other family who works for the school district, or if you  have a child in public school the Board and the Superintendent have a theoretical vehicle to punish you for opposing them, the same way they want to punish Myers and Thomas.

The official position of the school district is that any employee can be subject to retaliation for opposing the sales tax.  A teacher  can, in theory,  refuse to support it but a teacher  can’t oppose it. Nothing protects your children from retaliation either. Teachers and parents can become Myers and Thomas in a heartbeat. See FN/3 and attached MCSD policy statement.

Why else should you care? From Patrick Henry to Viola Liuzzo, from Concord to Selma, over the last two hundred years, millions of people have  died for Myers and Thomas to have the right to criticize their government, without fear of reprisal, even if the government is the seemingly inconsequential government of a relatively small  school district in the deep South. The right to present opposing ideas, so as to create better results, created our America, and the Board treads heavily on hallowed ground.


           FN/1 Both sides could probably complain that the story about the GBI investigation is not complete or not right.  We could get into the minutia of what who said to whom and where they were when they said it and how that made everybody feel and what they heard about it after that and who all was manipulating the press and yada, yada, yada, yada.   Part of the point of this post is the useless bickering and finger pointing.  I am pretty sure I got the 50,000 feet high version about right and I am sure if not someone will tell me. I am not oblivious to the fact I may end up in the sights for another tax payer funded legal attack by the Board on me.  I’ll take that risk.


            FN/ 2.  To be clear, Mrs. Pierce secretly tape recorded at least one executive session, and the board subsequently put in place a policy to sanction board members for breaking the confidentiality of an executive session.  Mrs. Pierce was not sanctioned under that policy, and to my knowledge neither has anyone else.  Through the time I left the board, while we had an ethics policy, which I helped draft, it did not purport to limit the right of dissent of any of the members.  That was a “reform” that came around after I left.


            FN/3 Dr. Lewis distributed a memo to all employees setting up guidelines for what they can and cannot do to support the sales tax.  Retaliation against employees for not supporting the sales tax is a “don’t”.  Retaliation against employees  for opposing the sales tax is not a “don’t”  and neither is retaliating against students for their parents a “don’t”. See the memo filed with this post.

SPLOST dos and donts 2-24-15

© Fife M. Whiteside, All rights Reserved

Note: This post originally referred to Henry County as a poster child for bad boardsmanship. This was a mistake. I meant to refer to Clayton County,which is just north of Henry. My apologies.

Lewis to Community: Financial Integrity Issues Not First Prority

The ink hardly dry on their oaths of office, newcomers Frank Myers and John Thomas, started the new year with a bang by voting as a two vote block against Superintendent Dr. David Lewis’ sales tax proposal, at last months contentious board meeting.

Both say that they do not necessarily oppose the idea of a sales tax or disagree with the financial needs expressed in the project list, but both believe MCSD needs to get it’s financial house in order first. Myers defeated incumbent Beth Harris by a better than two to one margin and Thomas defeated 28 year incumbent John Wells by an even larger margin. Both consider they have a mandate from their constituents to force financial reform.

Their focus is on two issues.

One issue is the perception, at least, that the school district has had a perineal problem with petty perhaps not so petty larceny at several levels. At the board meeting Thomas observed that most retail businesses expect a 2 percent theft loss rate and the school system although not a retailer is not immune to the same problem. Myers, predictably, has been less circumspect. He refers to the employee theft and cheating as an “open secret”

Both advocate for a “top to bottom” audit. This is a ambiguous term but the idea is to have a fresh look at the areas likely to have problems. Since the scope of the audit is ambiguous the cost estimates vary widely, but it wouldn’t be cheap. Could be as much as $250,000.

On what sounded like lawyer Myer’s cross examination. Lewis stated he was unaware of any fiscal integrity issues, past or present. I sent Lewis an email with a list of five separate incidents involving petty and not so petty theft, or bid irregularities, which were reported to me, officially, in my fifteen years of school board service. More about that below.

The other issue is the undeniable resistance of the school district to bid much of anything. Since Lewis’ immediate processor came, the first time, the practice of really price shopping what the school district buys has eroded to almost nothing.

The two issues are not unrelated: not bidding purchases makes graft very easy, some say inevitable. Even if cost savings are not created, bidding benefits the organization by removing that risk.

In early 2012, in a brilliantly executed “end run” around the media and the public, the school district got local legislation passed by the General Assembly to exempt itself from any legal requirement to bid anything. That privilege seems unusual and perhaps unique to MCSD. FN#1.

At the January meeting for example, the board let Lewis buy a million dollars worth of school buses, off the shelf, without current local bid. This not only undoubtedly cost the taxpayers thousands of dollars but it also cut out of consideration, Fort Valley, Georgia based BlueBird.

Both Thomas and Myers, who voted for the no-bid bus purchase, they say by oversight, say that the Board should simply hold administrators feet to the fire about shopping more thoroughly, at least turn the clock back to what was being bid before the last superintendent came his first time.

Getting to talk to Lewis about any of this was difficult. He is understandably very busy. We did speak by phone briefly and he invited me to the first of his forums.

In our phone conversation, Lewis made it clear that he did not want expensive, extraordinary auditing considered until he has finished his restructuring of the school district. He doesn’t want to delay his referendum till the restructuring is complete either. He doesn’t think it is needed.

Troubling thing is he never read my email. This is significant not because I expect him to make my emails or calls a priority any more than anyone else. It is significant because the most expensive of the financial irregularities I wrote Lewis about, those five incidents, involving several hundred thousand in misappropriations over a very long period of time, was recounted to me, in accurate detail, by a board meeting spectator, as we walked to our cars.

I guess this is Exhibit “A” for Myer’s “open secret” idea. If a member of the public, not within the MCSD “family”, would know why shouldn’t Lewis? Why shouldn’t he want to find out? His lack of concern is troublesome.

At the forum to which he invited me, Lewis made it clear he is not much concerned with how we buy what we buy. He stated that he would be reviewing the issue as he completes his overhaul.

In prior conversations I had with him, he had complained that it would cost too much to make a practice of bidding, really bidding, what we buy. This does not explain how we managed to bid, really bid, out so much more ten years ago with fewer administrators than we have now. It also does not explain how other, smaller school districts can afford to require bids on relatively small purchases.

So where that leaves us is with a clear divide in points of view. Myers and Thomas believe the time is now, before the referendum, to put boundaries around the how the money is spent… or stolen… and clearly Lewis does not.

I suspect that this is really a question about the culture of the organization, one which views itself as family, tolerant of transgressions and reluctant to criticize itself. Like most of the “change agent” superintendents we have had, Lewis appears to have found his way to the “family” table. If so then this does become a battle of wills between philosophies.

The real question is what does the public think. Until recently there has been little evidence that the public is much concerned about fiscal accountability at the MCSD. It has not appeared that the public has established a link between the spending ( or stealing) habits of the school district and the teacher furloughs and layoffs.

The recent school board elections may mean that is changing. Myers and Thomas, both of whom ran on a fiscal accountability platform, think so.

Lewis does not. I spoke to him a few months ago about what he thought the upsets in the Myers-Harris and Thomas-Wells races meant. He thought the upset vote was about the last minute votes by Wells and Harris, three years ago, to delay principal and vice principal appointments as part of a power struggle with former superintendent Andrews, not about lack of confidence in management at the school district.

This question, whether the public has sobered up to the importance of watching their education dollars, rather than whether the school district should get a tax increase for more education dollars is what is really on the ballot. That’s the $64,000 … or $200,000,000 … question for the St. Patrick’s day election.

Emails and calls to the Georgia School Board Association asking for information on other school districts that have local laws excusing bidding go without response. A spot check of several other school districts in Georgia does not reveal others. For example, Clarke County’s local legislation requires competitive bidding for everything purchase over $5000.

© Fife M. Whiteside, All Rights Reserved

A parable: When faith becomes toxic….

Some mysteries take most of a lifetime to solve.

When I was about eight, I saw the movie Diary of Anne Frank. The basic story, about a Jewish girl who was hidden and then found, then died in a German concentration camp, was compelling and left me, even at that young age, with a question which dogged me most of the rest of my life. I asked my Grandmother, for whom the word “crotchety” was coined, how good people, the good Germans, could permit such a terrible thing to happen.

My Grandmother, who had had contemporaries to send sons off to fight the Nazis, sons who came home in boxes or not at all, and who, having suffered through the fear and deprivation of the War Years, had an immediate answer: “Good Germans… there’s no such thing.” Mystery solved.

I didn’t accept that, and for many years, I suppose most of my life I tried to understand that. I knew Germans, from college years on, and I knew that they were not inherently evil, hiding horns and pitchforks under the bed, and lying in wait to find errant children to bake and eat, or Jewish families to slaughter.

Then over the years, in my law practice life, I had occasion to deal with, or deal with the debris left by, several true con men. I don’t mean “con men” in the colloquial sense of a person not to buy a used car from, but sure enough, indictable and “go to prison” swindlers.
Several things about them were always there.

First, they do not come as the devil. They come well dressed, articulate, and personable. They wear brand name clothes and drive nice cars. You’d buy a used car, or a gold mine in French Guyana, from them with no worries.

Second, they know what you want, your deepest needs. If you have problems with which you can’t deal, huge tax debts you cannot pay, for example, they have the solution, a guaranteed settlement with the IRS for pennies on the dollar, all for a small fee. Painless. How could it not be right?

Third, if you have something in your life that is an article of faith for you, your deepest beliefs, they are there with you. For example, if you own a failing motel and you are a family of deep, genuine Christian faith, God will have sent them to your motel, with a vision experienced while driving by down the interstate. God wants them to save you. They’ll turn the motel into faith based lodgings, complete with a dedicated chapel, a minister on call, and Christian channels on the TV.

Fourth, they never ask for much to begin. You inherited a vast sum from a relative in Nigeria of whom you never heard and the money is waiting for you. But Nigeria is a corrupt country and you have to pay, by Western Union, a small fee to get the money to America.

Fifth, they make you loyal to them, faith beyond reason. They will make you believe in them even when all the facts say not to believe. They put you in a place where you are so invested that to admit they are frauds would be to admit that you are a fool, and almost none of us can do that.

Swindlers find us where we are vulnerable, and take us from there. We are all weak, needy and vulnerable as some point in our lives. We all have been tempted by hope, false and real, and too confused to know the difference. If we do not get there earlier in life, we get there at the end. In short, every one of us is a “mark” at some time in our lives.

The Smiths … names and facts changed slightly to protect privacy…were in their seventies. They were both educated, and had worked in responsible jobs. They had had good lives, worked hard and accumulated some savings, and had money in retirement plans that (fortunately) could not be touched. They had what they needed to take care of themselves for the rest of their lives. They had children though and believed that they should be leaving an inheritance, and were troubled that they might not.
One day the phone rings and it is an agent of the Panamanian lottery with wonderful news, delivered in a perfect, upper class English accent. They’d won the lottery. There would be a small fee, $2500, to get the money out of the country. Then there were complications and another fee was needed. And another, and so on, until over $100,000 in savings and credit card advances, has been spent. The Smiths were waiting by the door for the driver to come from Hartsfield with their money. He never came.
As they were filing bankruptcy, they asked if they could dismiss their case if they wanted to. I explained that they could but would have to pay all the debt to do so. Mrs. Smith smiled and told me that when the lottery money came they would be able to pay all their debts. It never did.

In 1930, Germany, which had never recovered from the First World War, was reeling from the effects of the Great Depression. Deep in debt to foreign banks, Germany’s financial woes deepened as her ability to pay the debt faded. This was compounded by a weak and failing national government, partly a result of the inability of the traditional political parties to come to a consensus on how to deal with the country’s financial problems. Fellow Republicans take note….

In 1930, the Germans invested just 14 out of 107 parliament seats with Hitler. By the beginning of 1933, they had invested a third of parliament with Hitler. President Hindenburg named him Reich Chancellor to pacify the Nazis. On August 2, 1934, Hindenburg died and Hitler became the Fuhrer, and parliament became irrelevant.
Step by step the Germans had set aside their own common sense and human sensibilities and turned all their problems over to a “Strong” leader who promised he would save them. All they had to do, from their point of view, was sit back and say yes. They would speak with one voice that that voice was the Fuhrer. Personal responsibility was unneeded. All they had to do was believe, even when believing made no sense.

Were they monsters? Were they, as my Grandmother thought, all bad? No, they were just trying to feed their families, have jobs they could get to on time, and have a better life than they had had for years. They had a dream that that could be accomplished and faith in their leader to make it so. As the dream slowly turned into a nightmare, they were simply too invested to recognize it for what it is, even when the headlines (and returning boxes) demand it.A parable for modern times…
© Fife M. Whiteside, All rights reserved.

The Phillips Factor: How Dr. John Phillips Makes Changes to School Boards, If not to School Systems.

When Dr. John Phillips came to Columbus in 2002 it was after the acrimonious and bitter split between the School Board and former Superintendent Guy Sims. Sims, who retired prematurely, charged the board with “micromanaging” him, particularly on the issue of the Board’s consensus to provide magnet programs at each of the high schools.

The Board hired Phillips, with some not so gentle nudging by the business and media communities, to provide a strong CEO type administration which would leave little or no room for board involvement (“micromanaging”) in the decision making. This was, not coincidentally, consistent with the mindset of business leaders statewide:  Administrators were the experts in how to run schools and should not be bothered with political concerns.

The problem with that, as I pointed out in an editorial that ran in the Ledger Enquirer, the year Phillips came, was that set up the risk that the community would be cut out of the decision making as well.  Not just incidentally, it was the comments I made in this article, which were quoted, six years later, in 2008, my last year on the board,  in connection with the controversy over the building that got me in hot water with the Board years later.

The building, costing twice what was promised and funded through a “loophole” financing device that could be used without public approval, was brought to the board by Phillips in the midst of a public outcry unequaled by any I had ever seen. Cathy Williams and I were reprimanded by the board for inappropriately commenting to the media, even though the comments I made were made years before the reprimand.  What I was being reprimanded for was anticipating the future.

The administration building- the Muscogee County Public Education Building, MPEC, the Taj Mahal, or the Reichstag, however you might characterize it- is the best example of that effect of which I can think. There were many others, such as the decision to eliminate Reading Recovery, an expensive but successful reading program, while giving double digit raises to administrators, and most recently the ending of the school district’s 22 year commitment to neighborhood schools, with no prior notice, with the closing of Edgewood.

It is easy to blame and even vilify Phillips for running a school system so unconcerned with the needs and desires of the public.  It is also easy to blame board members who let him do that.  John Wells, up for re-election on Tuesday, once famously said, “I don’t care what the public thinks”, in a hot debate over some unpopular Phillips proposal.   I think the problem is the points of view.  Others blame the people involved.  I don’t.

It’s interesting that Phillips left Bartow County to come here in part because his three strongest supporters, on a five person board, were defeated just before his resignation there.  His strongest Board critic, Tammy Livengood, then became board chair, about the time that the board discovered that Bartow County was over a million dollars in the red, a fact apparently not known to the board before a state audit done after Phillips left.  The voting public in Bartow  clearlysent an unmistakable message.

What is also clear is that the Muscogee County voting public, after years of being disregarded and sometimes treated with just plain contempt, seems to be finally ready to send its own message.

Former board member Owen Ditchfield, who voted to bring Phillips here and supported Phillips in the elimination of Reading Recovery and was defeated (by the late Rev. Joseph Roberson) in his district election in 2004, was soundly defeated by Kia Chambers , in his effort to be elected at large in the recent election.

Current, but defeated board member, Beth Harris, once stated about Phillips that we were lucky to have him here at any price (salary).  Her comments were almost verbatim the same as comments made, years before, by former board member, and strong Phillip’s supporter, Brenda Storey, who was defeated in 2010 by Mark Cantrell.   Harris was defeated two to one by Phillips critic Frank Myers.

Current school board member Shannon Smallman, who is mid-way through her four year term, defeated Noreen Marvetts, a strong Phillips supporter, two years ago.

Former board member James Walker voted to bring Phillips here and also voted for his 30 day retirement followed by his 60 day reemployment which made it possible for Phillips to use a loophole in teacher retirement law to collect teacher retirement and his full pay, effectively doubling his income for a couple of months.  Walker was put out two years ago by Athavia Senior.

And that leaves John Wells, who barely made it into a run off with Phillips critic and IRS agent John Thomas.  Voters will go to the polls again on that race on Tuesday. Wells was certainly Phillips’ strongest supporter.  He went to visit him in Cartersville, after Phillips was appointed to offer his support and he provided it consistently during all three of Phillips’ tenures here, supporting him on every significant proposal to my knowledge.

Curiously Wells, who could, and I think should, run from Phillips and the Phillips years, like a scalded dog, instead seems to be running towards him and them, as hard as he can, running, as his ads say, on his record.  How the public reacts is anyone’s guess in a run off where the turnout is predicted to be so low. Well’s friends are very loyal and will go vote for him. The broader general public would not be so charitable. They may or may not care enough to go vote.   As with every election, it depends on who goes to vote.  I wouldn’t take a bet on this one either way.



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Attorney General Eric Holder, the first African American United States Attorney General, was lambasted for comments him made in a speech delivered shortly before his confirmation when he lambasted America for being “a nation of cowards” for refusing to discuss race openly. As he put it, “It’s a question of being honest with ourselves about racial issues that divide us….We have to have the guts to be honest with each other, accept criticism, accept new proposals.”
Holder was raked over the coals for that statement, and while I generally agree him about 10% of the time(the main point of agreement lying in his disdain for national banks), I do agree with him about that. That’s why the Curmudgeon wades in where others either have too much sense or not enough courage.
No secret that this is a divided city, maybe less than once but still divided. Superintendent Lewis picked right up on that and is attempting to address the North South and Black White divide by the use of three sub districts laid out horizontally on the map from North to South. While I’m not convinced that the idea of the three sub districts, which is not an invention of Lewis, will make much difference or that it will save much money, it speaks well of him that he is willing to address it straight on.
So when Kia Chambers, who self identifies as of mixed ancestry, told me, in a visit I had with her prior to the election, that she thought we were passed all that, I felt constrained to disabuse her of that: We are not.
Race figures into everything. This is particularly so in politics in general and in school politics in particular. Years ago, I watched the placement of the lavatory in a middle school bathroom turn racial, with Black board members lining up behind one concept of where it should be and White members lining up firmly on the other side. Over simplification but illustrative.
The Curmudgeon has assembled from information provided by the Board of Elections a schedule of the 27 precincts in the city with race demographics for each. Here is that schedule.

Race chart 2014

Note that we have simplified the information to include, for each precinct, to show what the racial composition of each is, by Black, White, and other.

The Curmudgeon has also assembled from information provided by the Board of Elections a schedule of how each of the precincts voted, providing by each precinct the name of each candidate who took a plurality or majority of the precinct. Here is that schedule.

Race chart 2- at large sorted by race

Note that we have not given specific percentages precinct by precinct although that information is available and we would be glad to supply. For simplicity sake we have only measured the precincts by who got the most votes, majority or plurality, in the precinct.

As a traditional Southern Baptist, I firmly accept the concept of the “priesthood of the believer” and that applies here. There are many interpretations of this information and other interpretations that could be drawn from the raw data provided by the Board of Elections, some generated just for us. We appreciate that and are constrained to stress that the Board of Elections are good folks and patient and should be considered an asset to the city. We will be happy to supply what we have to anyone on request.
My last six months on the board I tried to put out some ideas which, at that point, I knew would not get traction but which I hoped might later. One of those ideas was that the At Large representative should automatically be the Chair. When local legislation was originally written to create the elected school board, the law was written that way, but taken out, it is said, at the request of the late Senator Floyd Hudgens.
The benefits of it are several. It puts another decision in the hands of the public and not in the hands of the board itself. This is a benefit beyond just empowering the public. It eliminates the occasional embarrassing power struggle between board members over who should be the chair.
I was alone in my support of that idea. All the board, at that time, were in the mode, prevalent under the Phillips administration, that the what the public wants is irrelevant, but Black board members made the argument that a plurality White Columbus would never elect a Black for the at large seat, so that would mean there would never be a Black Chairman.
They were wrong. Chamber’s majority (no run off) election clearly demonstrates that. She won or took a plurality in every single majority Black precinct, a little less than half the precincts, but she also soundly won or took pluralities in six precincts where the majority were White or other. These included Britt David which is over 83% white or other.
Conversely, Owen Ditchfield won or took a plurality in all but one of the precincts in which 80% or more of the population was identified as White or Other.
Indicative of a continuing racial divide among voters? Sure, but what is really interesting is the number of precincts in which Chambers took a majority or plurality which were majority White and Other. There were six of these, Britt David, which is one of the Whitest precincts in the city, St. Andrews, Psalmond, Blackmon, Fox and Edgewood, with all but one located in North Columbus.
Her appeal to White voters was also demonstrated in her financial support base as well where she received money from a number of high profile White business people and leaders.
Some ascribe her victory to a concerted “get out the vote” effort within the Black community. It is true that she did better with “pre-votes” than she did with at the polls, Election Day voting. However, that trend was evenly placed all across the city, in predominantly Black and predominantly White and Other districts. If that is a result of a “get out the vote” effort, it’s just good organization and proactive politicking. Nothing remotely racial about that.
So what does that lead us to conclude? Should we roll out the champagne to celebrate the dawning of a truly post racial society? No one would think the Curmudgeon would be so optimistic (or Polly Anna-ish) to say that. But that may be a little bit of sunlight we are seeing on the horizon and maybe we could pop the top on a PBR and consider the possibility of the coming of a new day. Well, at least have a cold one and think about it…
Stay tuned for the next Curmudgeon, where we get into what part past Superintendent John Phillips had in the defeat of his strongest supporters.

© Fife M. Whiteside