Proposal to strip taxing power from school board draws racism charge

mlee@macon.comFebruary 20, 2013 

ATLANTA -- A new proposal by state Sen. Cecil Staton would take taxing power away from a Bibb County school board beset by “dysfunction” and give the county commission oversight of education funding.

The move drew immediate charges of racism and circumventing the will of voters.

“We do know that we have too much dysfunction on our school board. We do know that we have way too much money being spent on administration,” and too much spending is pushing the budget into the red, said Staton, R-Macon.

His comments came at a Wednesday news conference at the Capitol to explain the measure, which is expected to be published early next week. At the podium with Staton was state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon.

“I think we have to send a message. And if it takes this bill to send a message to the school board of Macon and Bibb county, then I’m willing to do it on behalf of the students and parents. We’ve had enough,” Staton said.

His bill would make Bibb the only school system in Georgia that cannot levy its own taxes. The bill does not change the millage rate cap.

The Bibb County school system is now entangled in two lawsuits involving finances. One of them claims that Superintendent Romain Dallemand’s contracts are invalid, and another takes issue with funding details of a planned Macon Promise Center program.

The superintendent has also come under fire for his extensive travel since he came to Macon two years ago and for the price tag of his Macon Miracle initiative, the long list of school reforms.

Staton’s GOP colleague, state Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson, said he has not reviewed the bill and had no comment.

But Bibb’s third senator, state Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, said, “This is nothing but racism.”

He continued, “Certain segments of the white community have been opposed to Dr. Dallemand and the programs he’s instituted.” Lucas also said the proposal is about the GOP angling to be in charge of the consolidated Macon-Bibb County.

Lucas said Dallemand’s programs will help the majority of students who are in school, and that criticisms are coming from parents who don’t even use Bibb County schools.

“I’d tell them to put their kids in the school system. Take them out of those private schools” before making criticisms, Lucas added.

Staton said race is too often brought into Macon-Bibb politics “when we’re trying to do things that are positive for the community, as an excuse,” to slow those changes.

Staton noted that a majority of Bibb’s public school students are minority. “I’m doing this for them,” he said.

He focused on criticisms of school administration, skipping the educational policies in the Macon Miracle.

Bibb schools spokeswoman Stephanie Hartley referred questions about Staton’s proposal to board members.

One of them, Wanda West, does not agree with the proposal, saying it was “absolutely awful” that the matter wasn’t discussed beforehand with the school board. Such a proposal should go back before voters, West said, since voters gave the school board taxing power in the first place.

Such a proposal doesn’t help bring the community together either, she said.

“The children come first, and the board of education is closest to supporting and recommending those decisions,” West said. “I think it should be left with the board of education.”

Board member Lester Miller also said he did not favor the idea.

School board member Jason Downey said in a statement that the proposal points to “a serious and real problem” with the school system’s budget, and several Bibb parents have brought their concerns about school system spending to his attention.

“This is a time for fiscal responsibility, and devoting all of our energies into the classroom where teachers can make a difference in the lives of our children,” Downey said. “We as a board cannot support budgets that are out of balance by millions of dollars, depleting reserves.”

Acting school board President Sue Sipe and board member Tom Hudson declined to comment on Staton’s proposal, and board members Lynn Farmer, Thelma Dillard and Ella Carter could not be reached.

Split views

Staton’s bill would reverse the result of a 2004 referendum that gave the school board its taxing power. Lucas sponsored the 2004 bill that set up the referendum, and state Rep. Nikki Randall, D-Macon, was among the co-signers.

State Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, said he’s not interested in signing Staton’s bill.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea. I’m always going to default to what the voters say,” Beverly said. “We get up here and we have the ability to do certain things, but it doesn’t mean we should.”

Randall said she’s sympathetic to board and superintendent critics’ point of view.

“The public sees that there are a whole lot of unanswered questions, and I certainly understand the outcry,” she said. But she also pointed out that several of the school board members are new and not responsible for decisions made on the last board’s watch.

“I think some of them are going to do a good job, be more thorough, ask more questions,” she said, advocating giving them a chance to do so, not shift away their power.

State Rep. Bubber Epps, R-Dry Branch, who represents much of unincorporated Bibb County and is a veteran of the Twiggs County Commission, said he’s not sure county commissioners would be interested in taking on the complexities of an education budget that’s bigger than the general county budget.

“We haven’t had any input from the county commissioners as to their attitude on this,” Epps said. He hopes both commissioners and citizens get in touch with him about it as did his GOP colleague from Musella, state Rep. Robert Dickey.

“The school board has had some very controversial and questionable decisions, so I think it’s our duty to look at the process by which they go through those financial decisions,” he said.

Peake said school management now is a “sinking ship,” and discussion would tell if Staton’s bill is an agreeable rescue boat.

Gary Bechtel sat on the school board for a dozen years and has been through the education budget process both with and without county commission oversight.

“I understand what the senator (Staton) is doing,” said Bechtel, now a commission member, but “I don’t know that the commission has enough knowledge to make those decisions” on education spending.

His commission colleague, Joe Allen, has also served long enough to have done the budgeting both ways. He thinks commission oversight is better, but he would like a decision from Bibb voters, not the state Legislature.

The commissioners plan to discuss the legislation at a meeting scheduled for 9 a.m. Friday.

To take effect in time for the first consolidated government election in 2013, the bill must pass during this legislative session, which is likely to end in early April.

Writer Andrea Castillo contributed to this report.

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