Valdosta Daily Times

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February 11, 2013

Bill would close talks on troubled school boards

ATLANTA — State education officials could deliberate privately on whether to recommend the removal of troubled school boards under a plan being considered by Georgia legislators.

The plan from Rep. Tom Dickson, R-Cohutta, would allow the state Board of Education to talk behind closed doors on whether to recommend the removal of school board members when their school systems are on the verge of losing their accreditation. Any testimony to the state board and a vote on its final recommendation to the governor would still happen in public.

The state board can enter into consent agreements that require school boards to make improvements. It can also recommend that Gov. Nathan Deal replace or keep local school board members.

“My experience in the past as an educator at board meetings was that the media, who’s the one who reports on these meetings, has a tendency to take individual comments and once they’re printed out of context, change the whole flavor of that,” said Dickson, who retired as a school superintendent from Whitfield County. “That tends to inhibit the ability to have a full discussion of what their findings are from the hearing.”

His bill received initial approval last week from the House Committee on Education.

State Board of Education member Larry Winter, who supports the plan, said it does not impair the public’s right to know.

While Winter said the state board can recommend the removal of local school officials, it aims to rehabilitate bodies. He said public deliberations can chill discussions. He noted that juries can deliberate privately on legal cases and local governments can meet privately on whether to discipline employees.

“If you’re deliberating in private there are no such things as stupid ideas,” Winter said. “When you’re deliberating in public, people are afraid to come up with an off-the-wall idea that might ultimately be the right idea.”

Tim Callahan, a spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said, “The bill seems to balance openness and the public’s right to know with the ability of the state board to deliberate as in a personnel action.”  

Other parts of the bill would give local school officials more time before they must appear before the state Board of Education.

The legislation would eliminate an all-or-nothing problem that governors face should they replace local school boards. Under current law, the governor can remove an entire board, even school board members elected by voters after a school district is placed on probation.

Winter said governors can now get around the issue by reappointing school board members who arrived after problems started to finish the remainder of their terms in office.

The new law would make clear that local school board members elected after a district is placed on probation can stay even if other board members are removed.

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