How to avoid a swirl of controvery: Transparency

January 20, 2013 

Imagine authorizing a business agent to acquire a modest bungalow on St. Simons Island. Nothing major, just a little domicile for weekend getaways and vacations. Now imagine that your business agent instead has gotten you on the hook for a 10,000-square-foot villa and a far deeper financial commitment than you had expected. You might be a little dismayed. You might also be a member of the Bibb County school board or, especially, a Bibb County taxpayer.

The school system’s involvement with the Macon Promise Center, part of a revitalization effort known as Macon Promise Neighborhood, is as confusing as Macon’s road network. But the gist of it is this: In an effort to help win a federal grant to push forward with the neighborhood revitalization initiative, the school board agreed to commit up to $1 million annually for over a decade. But not long after that, Bibb Superintendent Romain Dallemand signed off on a $19.3 million commitment of cash and in-kind services without the board’s prior approval. Included in that amount is $5.75 million to lease space in the old Ballard-Hudson Middle School the district sold in 2009 for $220,000.

Dallemand’s actions have badly muddied the waters, with auditors citing the district for not keeping the board informed and not putting agreements such as the lease to a vote. If that were not enough, Chief Financial Officer Ron Collier has filed a lawsuit claiming Dallemand pressured him to pay a $1 million bill to the school building’s new owner, a Promise Neighborhood partner. Collier had balked at paying it because, he said, he didn’t know what the money was being spent on or if the expenditure was legitimate.

Dallemand might have felt justified bypassing the board’s oversight, given the potential good in the Macon Promise Center. It hopes to be a place where youngsters in the Anthony Road area can receive services -- from tutoring to dental care -- intended to help them become healthier and to improve student achievement.

But however laudable this project might be, it does not justify keeping the Bibb school board -- the agents of Bibb taxpayers -- in the dark. Bibb taxpayers might embrace change as warmly as they would a freeloading relative -- and the Promise Center would be a big, expensive change -- but they are still the ones footing the bill. They have a right to know where their money is going, and Dallemand has an obligation to be completely forthcoming about that.

The school board is not blameless in this matter, either. At an October meeting, the board wound up approving agreements Dallemand had made, even though some board members said they weren’t completely clear about what they were approving. Why, then, didn’t they try to table the matter until they could study it further?

It’s often easier to go it alone on a big project rather than build a working consensus based on disclosure and persuasion. The latter is a slow and laborious slog. Yet it is the job of a leader to rally those he leads toward the goal he has fixed. By sidestepping the board, Dallemand has not only shown a disdain for Bibb taxpayers, but he also has helped create a swirl of controversy around a project that might otherwise have received the full blessing of the taxpayers.

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