Friday, January 30, 2009

Be Careful For What One Wishes

There are three points I wish to raise with regard to Wednesday’s appointment by the Clarke County Board of Education of Philip Lanoue, described by the Banner-Herald as “an area superintendent in metro Atlanta's Cobb County school system,” to the position of superintendent of the Clarke County School District.

The first is that current interim superintendent James Simms may have been better served by following through with his threatened resignation of last year. At that time, Simms publicly confronted the Board of Education over its interference with decisions that were properly the responsibility of the superintendent (and yes, there were shades of the Clayton County School District’s SACS accreditation debacle). Eventually, though, the two sides made nice. Be that as it may, Simms drew a line in the sand insofar as the Board was concerned and now he may be out of a job (unless he returns to the number two spot which, given the history at work here, I would think somewhat problematic). One cannot help but wonder if there is a connection between Simms’ previous outspokenness and the Board omitting him from its list of finalists. Get background on the dispute here, here, and here.

The second is that it wasn’t really an appointment. What the Board voted to do is enter contract negotiations with, and begin a background check of, Mr. Lanoue. The result of the vote was announced but, as I understand it, the meeting that produced the actual decision was closed to the public. This is an issue because it appeared that the Board originally planned to keep even the vote itself under raps, beginning the contract and background processes but keeping the public out of the loop until a formal (meaning superfluous) vote on the hiring was held at its February voting session. The consulting firm hired to conduct the search for a new superintendent indicated that a secret vote was permissible under Georgia law; I remain unconvinced as to the legality of that approach and, given the secretive nature of some of the Board’s past actions, suspect that there would have been some public relations fallout. For background, see here (specifically Jim Geiser’s comment at the bottom of the story), here, and here.

The third is that Lanoue will have his hands full in terms of both academic and administrative headaches. For years, in person, in print, and in the blogosphere, I have lamented the poor academic achievement of the CCSD as a whole and the high level of expenditures used to purchase that poor achievement. I read that the Board voted to opt for Lanoue in large part because of his record of increasing student achievement in “poor” schools. I certainly hope that he succeeds in bringing about similar change here, but we shall see. I will revisit the achievement and expenditure issues in future posts.

I am equally interested to see how Lanoue deals with the administrative, bureaucratic, and procedural aspects of his new job. On the one hand, I freely admit that I have a predilection toward being suspicious of government. On the other hand, however, the District and the Board have a long and demonstrable history of engaging in questionable practices that amply justify such suspicions, practices about which the new superintendent should be aware.

In 2004, the Board held the legally mandated public hearings on a budget that did not include a millage rate increase. The budget as later adopted, however, included a 0.25 mills property tax increase on which public hearings were never held. The Taxpayers Bill of Rights plainly dictates that the public hearings process should have been repeated on the new budget. That did not happen. A couple of we concerned citizens pursued the matter up the chain of command, being treated to an impressive display of bureaucratic obfuscation, evasion, and denial on the part of local and state officials. To make a long story short, the Department of Revenue’s position on the matter was that its regulations, ostensibly written to implement TBOR, actually allowed local taxing authorities to do precisely what that law prohibited (yes, you read that correctly) – and don’t think that local taxing authorities haven’t made the most of that interpretation. We should have spared ourselves a lot of time and trouble and simply filed a lawsuit.

Also in 2004, the Board appropriated about $150,000 to develop a plan for spending SPLOST 3 revenue. The problem was that the money for the study itself was slated to be repaid by SPLOST 3 revenue. In other words, the Board voted to spend money from a specific optional sales tax it hoped would be approved by the voters two years later and generating revenue a year after that. Had the referendum not passed, the money for the study would have had to be cannibalized from elsewhere in the 2007 budget.

Speaking of which, in 2006 the Board announced plans to hold its SPLOST 3 referendum as a special election in the month of September. To do so would have entailed an unnecessary expense, estimated at $40,438, to open and staff all 24 of the county’s precincts and program voting machines. This would be for a ballot with only one question, to be held on an election date guaranteed to result in a low turn-out. Faced with a public outcry, the Board eventually opted to hold its referendum a couple of months later, concurrent with November’s general elections.

Also consider the matter of the SPLOST 3 bonds authorized by that referendum. The caveat was that, if sales tax revenue is insufficient to repay the bonds, property taxes will be raised to compensate for the insufficiency. The CCSD presented a bond resolution to the Commission that included language attributed to the state Constitution allowing the transfer of bonded indebtedness from sales taxes to property taxes. That problem was that the stipulation was made up out of whole cloth – it is not in the Constitution. For that matter, I could find no such provision in O.C.G.A. or in the administrative regulations of either the Department of Revenue or Department of Education.

Then, in both 2006 and 2008, we have the CCSD’s participation in the deceptively-named Consortium for Adequate School Funding in Georgia. Despite the fact that the District spends top dollar relative to the other school systems in the state in both absolute and percentile terms, it claims that it is “inadequately” funded. The local contribution to funding is already at the 20 mills limit imposed by the state Constitution and the State of Georgia funds the District to the same extent that it funds every other school system in the state (that somehow manage to get far more bank for their buck, mind you, and I will again note that QBE funding of the CCSD has soared in recent years with actual “cuts” ending way back in FY ’04). Read my earlier comments on the Consortium here, here,and here.

Finally, we have the dispute over per pupil expenditures that preceded last November’s Board of Education elections. Incumbent and President of the Board of Education Charles Worthy claimed a certain level of per pupil spending, as contrasted with challenger Jim Geiser’s higher claim. As the one person in Clarke County who has railed about profligate per pupil spending for a good while now, I immediately recognized both figures and realized the Geiser’s was the more recent.

I noted as much in a letter to the Banner-Herald, which prompted wholesale and immediate changes to the CCSD web site. It also prompted a response from the District’s public relations department. Unfortunately, the rationale given for Worthy’s figures did not add up, either figuratively or literally - and when politely pressed for specifics (i.e., the number of students used in the calculations attributed by the CCSD to the figures used by either candidate, the dollar amounts of the budgets involved, a citation of sources of information, the method of calculation used to arrive at the figures), the bureaucracy could not provide them. A cynic may be inclined to think that the CCSD bureaucracy provided a useful, though wholly unverifiable, defense of the President of the Board running for reelection. For my earlier comments about this, see here, here, and here.

As evidenced by his application for it, Lanoue obviously wants the job of CCSD superintendent and, barring something completely unforeseen, has it. Now the hard part begins. I hope that he realizes into what he has gotten himself.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

awesome articles. they really bring out the truth from the facade that everyone is hiding behind in this seriously deranged school system. myself a student at clarke county, I feel the direct affects of these decisions, and sadly to say, they are ruining my education. Education is meant to challenge the students and promote their learning to the best of their abilities, and this is seriously not the case in my education. There is so much politics in a system where the mission should be blatantly obvious, the furthering education of the children. Instead, these school board members are so concieted, in their own little world above everyone else, treating this whole thing like a game, when its ruining thousands of children's futures.