Meeting Minutes, March 20, 2013

Emory LaVista Parent Council
Meeting March 20, 2013
Laurel Ridge Elementary School

Rebuilding Our School System—Lessons Learned and Thoughts for the Future

School Board members present at the meeting: Karen Carter, Thad Mayfield, Marshall Orson, Jim McMahan, Melvin Johnson

Matt Lewis—Druid Hills High School School Council—The Druid Hills cluster is pursuing approval as a Charter Cluster. They have formed a committee of two representatives from each school who were selected by the school’s School Councils. There are six groups working on different parts of the petition for Charter Cluster status. Each group contains between 6 and 27 members. Once this work is complete, there will be a cluster-wide vote on whether to move forward with the petition for Charter Cluster status. Visit www.druidhillschartercluster.org or on Facebook Druid Hills Charter Cluster for more information. The committee meets the first and third Tuesday of each month.

Guest Speaker: Dr. Howard Grant

Executive Director of Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education.—This position does not exist in DeKalb County School System. Dr. Grant has been with the Atlanta Schools through the board turmoil and cheating scandal.

Dr. Grant is confident that DeKalb schools are in good hands now with the new board. We have all of the components in place for success, and he thinks it would be a pleasure to work with the new board.

Dr. Grant’s position in Atlanta schools was created by the Atlanta Board of Education Charter. He serves as a liaison between the school board, the State and the community. Dr. Grant makes sure that all communities have access to the school board. He works closely with External Affairs and lobbyists to protect the interests of Atlanta schools at the State level.

Problems in Atlanta schools began in 2009. Prior to that, the board had unanimous votes, which is both good and bad. Unanimous votes can show board unity, but also call into question whether the board is engaged.

Dr. Grant now trains anyone who wants to run for school board so they are prepared if they are elected. He believes it takes 20 hours per week to be an effective school board member. There are meetings, committee meetings, materials to review, and responding to the public.

The board should function as one unit—individual board members have very little power.

In 2009, the cheating scandal was discovered. The board started asking questions, which was good, but they stopped using good board governance.

SACS stepped in because of board governance issues.

Factions on the board prevented business from being done. The individual board members functioned more as district representatives instead of members of the whole. The ultimate goal needs to be a system that serves all children, not individual districts.

The Atlanta (and DeKalb) school board issues are not unique: all over the country, school boards are dysfunctional.

There is a line that separates school system governance from school system management. The school board should be on the governance side of the line. The superintendent crosses the line between governance and management. The board is not supposed to cross this line.

SACS told Atlanta school board to revamp communication protocols and increase communication. The Board made a commitment to meet every Monday night until they received full accreditation. Communication was critical to establishing public trust.

A positive outcome was that the board members knew the public was watching their decisions.

They worked to align the School Board policies with thee State of Georgia Code of Ethics. Now, they have a seven member Ethics Commission that is not nominated by Board members. Instead, the School Board approves organizations that nominate representative to the Ethics Commission. The Ethics Commission functions independently and can advise, interject or ask questions. A good rule is “if you have to ask if something is ethical, you probably shouldn’t do it.”

Dr. Grant’s advice to DeKalb is to embrace whatever processes you establish to address SACS. It is much better to embrace the plan than to fight the plan.

Atlanta Schools also revamped its Audit Committee. The Board reviews but is not a part of day to day management decisions of the School System. The Board enacts policy and the administration creates regulations to effect the board policy.

SACS directed the Atlanta School Board to hire a new superintendent, but no one wants to be superintendent with a dysfunctional board or a board that is controlled by a slim majority. The Board was able to select its new superintendent with a supermajority (7 to 2) vote.

Positive outcomes of all of this: a much more conscious School Board and public and the school system now engages parent groups. All parents are concerned about the children and want them well prepared for life. Five different parent groups could all agree on one person to represent them.

Dr. Grant’s recommendations for us:
1. Have faith in the new board.
2. Hold the new board accountable
3. Participate and be vocal
4. Have high expectations for the end product.

Questions

Q: How to address accuracy of information given to or by the Board?
A: Administration needs to give information to board members in advance of the time they make a decision on that information so the board members have time to ask questions. Questions of board members can be addressed by the superintendent in small sessions, as opposed to meetings.

Q: Is that a run around the Open Meetings Act?
A: There is no quorum and no decisions being made. But sessions are an opportunity to ensure that important topics are brought up at public meetings.

Q: How does the Ethics Committee work?
A: Seven groups appoint members of the committee. The groups don’t change, but the members serve for five year staggered terms.

Q: How do committees work?
A: Commissions are standing: Audit, Budget, Accountability. Committees come and go based on the Board chairperson. Work is done in committees. Board members are invited to attend, but only three Board members are voting members of any committee. The Committee only decides whether to bring an issue to the full board. They do not decide the issue.

Q: SACS instructed DeKalb to eliminate standing committees because board members took too much ownership of the committee or became disengaged.
A: Committee chairs change every 1-2 years. Committee meetings are open to the public and public comment can be taken at any committee meeting at the discretion of the chair.

Q: How does the Audit Committee work?
A: Three advisory members are people with audit backgrounds. The compliance department of the School System handles internal audit functions. Then an external firm is hired to conduct audits to ensure compliance with state rules. The year end state audit is publicly available.

Q: How much did it cost to create the Ethics Committee and how long did it take?
A: The members of the Ethics Committee should receive a stipend of $150 per meeting but the committee voted not to accept the stipend. The Ethics Committee was free to create, but when a case is before it, attorneys are sometimes hired to investigate and conduct a hearing if necessary. Atlanta Schools spent about $100,000 to get the Ethics Commission up and running and manage recent cases. Dr. Grant reviews all bills from attorneys for the Ethics Commission to ensure that costs are kept down.

Q: Parents have tried to hold people accountable in the past and it didn’t work. What can parents do to make it work now?
A: The Board established norms of operation—ground rules for how the Board functions and treats each other. The Board needs to embrace the concept of getting guidance from parents instead of just input. The Board needs to acknowledge that parent groups represent many people. Board members should attend town hall meetings and take questions and follow up if they don’t know answers.

Q: How does Atlanta Schools build its budget?
A: The budget process starts at the time the previous budget is approved. There is guidance from parents at various meetings and public comment before the budget is voted on at the committee level. They conduct three public hearings and three town hall meetings where the budget is discussed and public comment is taken. Every department is required to reduce their budget except the instructional budget.