By Maggie Lee
State legislators want to trim the number of DeKalb County school board members by 2013 in an effort to make the board more efficient and manageable.
The Legislature is being asked to consider a law that could cut the board to five or seven from the current nine members.
It’s a good piece of reform, says Dunwoody’s next state senator, Fran Millar, a Republican who long served as a House member.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, (D-Decatur), calls for a county referendum on whether to cut the number of board members to five or seven board members.
Millar says the bill is a high priority because the association that has the power over the accreditation of DeKalb County schools likes it.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the accrediting agency, has been closely watching the DeKalb County schools, in part, because of allegations its former superintendent and former COO funneled contracts to insiders for personal gain.
Mark Elgart, SACS president and CEO, has signaled that he would favor a smaller board.
Millar, meanwhile, signed onto a new state law last year that caps newly formed school boards at seven members.
“Let’s be consistent,” Millar said. He noted that five board members oversee Gwinnett’s highly rated system.
Jim Redovian – who lost his bid for re-election to the DeKalb County School Board Nov. 30 – also favors a cut in the number of school board members.
“Instead of having nine personalities, you’d have seven,” making consensus easier, he said. “The problem with five is that three people could control it,” he added.
Nancy Jester, who won the District 1 seat and will take office in January, agrees with a proposed cut.
“A nine-member board has proven to be ineffective,” she said.
Meanwhile, the DeKalb Council of PTAs is not taking an official position on the bill. Its priorities, according to President Marcia Coward, are finances, overcrowding and bullying.
“As a PTA, we’re governed by national and state PTA rules. Once we vote on priorities, we follow those,” she explained.
School board reform just doesn’t make the list. “We’re trying to keep them on the funding priority,” Coward said.
That’s what DeKalb parents told the county’s legislative delegation during a public meeting Nov. 18. Overcrowding was the biggest complaint, but so were furlough days for school employees and the threat of school closures.
The new proposal to cap school boards at seven members also mandates tighter rules on ethics. For instance, if elected, a prospective board member could not have close family ties to top administrators. Daily expenses would be capped at $50 and ethics training would be required.
Ethics can be hard to legislate, Coward said. “Making sure that board members are ethical is something no law can mandate,” Coward said.
That goes back to voters making informed choices, she believes.
Oliver’s bill may yet be edited. As written, DeKalb voters must first approve the idea in the 2011 elections. They would then be scheduled to choose either a five- or seven-member board format. In early 2012, the Legislature could ratify a new district map with fewer seats.
If the scenario plays out, all seats would be contested in November 2012. Then, in two years, either two or three board members would be up for re-election, depending on the format.
Either way, Millar said he’d be surprised if there was any dissent on the bill. So-called “local legislation” – laws that only affect a single city or county – usually pass easily.