After a lengthy debate on the House floor, the Georgia General Assembly passed a bill on April 11 that reduces the size of the DeKalb County School Board from nine to seven members.
SB 79, which passed the House with a 109-62 vote, was originally proposed by Sen. Earl “Buddy” Carter (R-District 1) to lengthen the term of school board members in Chatham County, Savannah, from two to four years.
Several amendments were later added to the bill in an effort to address the problems facing the Atlanta Public School System and to limit the number of school board members in DeKalb.
“What you need to understand is that the original bill was my bill…the part for DeKalb County was proposed by Sen. Fran Millar (R-District 40) and [the part for] Atlanta was proposed by Rep. Edward Lindsey (R-Atlanta),” Carter said.
The bill also allows Gov. Nathan Deal the power to remove the members from any school board in a district that is facing loss of accreditation.
Some legislators feel the bill usurps local control and is in violation voters’ rights.
“We are in opposition…of having the minority overpower the majority; we talk about bullying, this is bullying in its finest form,” said Rep. Pam Stephenson (D-Decatur) who represents parts of DeKalb. Stephenson was upset because she said local delegations were bypassed as the bill made its way through committee.
“We were never notified that [the bill] was going to be on the calendar for the education committee in the House. When it did come up it was a split vote but there was no one there representing DeKalb’s interests,” Stephenson said.
Rep. Rashad Taylor (D-Fulton), Vice-Chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said he was concerned that if the legislation was enacted and Gov. Deal chose to replace the members of the Atlanta school board, there would then be a board consisting entirely of appointed individuals that would be electing a new superintendent.
Taylor also said he thought the language dealing with accreditation in the bill was too vague, noting that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) has placed several counties, including DeKalb, on advisement or warning.
Rep. Lindsey, who sponsored the bill in the House, said that he believed it was speaking specifically of school districts that were placed on probation by SACS. He also said that Georgia had a constitutional right to keep its school boards in check.
“The bill, [in regard to] the number of school board members, is in conformance with recommendations set out by a study conducted by the Georgia Commission for School Board Excellence…which specifically found in analyzing board governance around the country that the optimum number of school board members is either seven members or less,” Lindsey said.
DeKalb and Atlanta are among 13 districts in the state with more than seven board members and are the only ones in metro Atlanta that have more than seven.
Rep. Gloria Tinubu (D-Atlanta) said the idea that seven is the perfect number for school boards and that the smaller the board the better is a manufactured one.
“There’s no scientific [or] empirical study that has verified that at all and it doesn’t make any sense for our state to have this magic number of seven…The larger the board size the better amount of representation…there’s no data that says a smaller board is more effective, particularly as it relates to student achievement,” Tinubu said.
DeKalb County School Board Chairman Tom Bowen said that it was interesting that the bill came from the state level rather than the local level but he was not too surprised.
“There were some other bills that were local that we had been actively talking with the local delegation about and none of those were pursued. So, to have an amendment and adjustment to a senate bill just added on was something we didn’t expect,” Bowen said.
However, Bowen said even if this bill had not emerged the boundaries would have been redrawn anyway to even out the population shift.
“The other thing that is noteworthy is that at a statewide level there is pressure to move toward seven seats…in the case of DeKalb you have what seemed to be no local push but a statewide push. At [the] statewide level that is the trend, reducing the boards to seven members,” Bowen said.