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.
# 1A Yes2Kids_Amen030215
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.
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…