Survey: School boards leery of giving state officials too much oversight

Most school board members say they should be held more accountable in office to help their boards function better.

But a recent survey of 147 of the state’s 180 school boards showed that board members are leery of giving the state too much oversight.

Earlier this year, the state asked a task force of top executives, accountants, lawmakers and education officials, called the Commission for School Board Excellence, to study and recommend ways to make local school boards more effective.

The move came after Clayton County’s school board landed in hot water with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools for meddling in school operations. The school system ended up losing its accreditation, which can affect students’ chances for HOPE scholarships, teacher certification and transfer credits.

To improve school boards, the commission has suggested that there be new laws that would allow the state Board of Education to intervene at certain times. The recommendations include creating uniform conflict-of-interest and ethics policies, clarifying the roles of board members, requiring school board candidates to meet minimum qualifications, such as having a high school diploma, and requiring them to pass a drug test.

The commission also recommends that board members receive more group and individual training on their duties, and that the state set how much board members are paid.

Some larger school systems pay board members more than $10,000 a year, commission officials have said.

Officials with the Georgia School Boards Association say that 82 percent of school board members are paid less than $5,000 for the work.

The task force presented recommendations to school board members for the first time at a recent state association conference in Atlanta.

But most boards dislike the majority of the commission’s recommendations.

According to a GSBA survey revealed last week, 76 percent of school boards oppose allowing the state to temporarily step in and take control if a board continues to fail.

Many board members questioned how long a takeover would last and how it would work, said Laura Reilly, a spokeswoman for the school board association.

“What board members objected to most was the notion of local control being ignored in favor of state mandates,” Reilly said. “Many of the recommendations from the commission are issues already decided locally, like board member compensation and the number of members there should be on a school board.”

On the issue of drug testing board members and disqualifying candidates who work for a school system from board seats — among the commission’s suggestions — “many (board members) felt these recommendations run afoul of the Constitution and/or election laws,” Reilly said.

Some Middle Georgia school board members said they understand the need for more accountability, but they are uneasy about giving the state so much control.

“We brought some of this on ourselves,” said Peach County school board Chairman Jody Usry. “I think we’ve done a lot as school boards to earn their attention and desire to regulate us.”

Earlier this year, the Peach County school system was placed on SACS accreditation probation because of a board dispute over where to build a new school and board members’ meddling in school operations, but the system recently came off probation.

Boards need to work harder to regulate themselves, which is why Peach County is working on its own ethics policy, he said.

“There is an oversight committee already,” said Houston County school board member Skip Dawkins, who also opposed many of the recommendations. “It’s called voters.”

As for pay, Houston board members earn $3,000 a year, and Bibb board members earn $7,200 for the elected office.

“We’re not making a living off it,” Dawkins said.

And if too many mandates are put on prospective board candidates, no one may run for the office, Dawkins said.

Boards did agree that they need a statewide code of ethics and conflict-of-interest guidelines, and they favor nonpartisan elections held on a general election cycle.

“I still think local boards should have control. However, there needs to be some way of dealing with dysfunctional school boards,” said Tommy Barnes, a Bibb County school board member who would like to see a happy medium between boards and state oversight.

If school boards are given too many unfunded state mandates, it “makes any board member leery of any state interaction,” he said. The state board has adopted the recommendations as a report, and the recommendations are expected to head to the Legislature early next year, said Phil Jacobs, retired president of a division of AT&T and co-chair of the Commission for School Board Excellence,

He wasn’t surprised by the results of the school board association survey, but he said he expects lawmakers to adopt most of the measures.

“They are a little bit gun-shy of more requirements coming from the state,” Jacobs said.

“We understand the concern, but something has to be done with governance.”

What happened in Clayton County shouldn’t happen to any more schools systems, he said.

“We don’t need to replicate that anywhere else in the state.”