School Board favors remaining at nine members

2/21/2014, 8:50 a.m.

Despite a 2011 state law calling for the number of DeKalb School Board seats to be reduced to seven, board members voted overwhelmingly recently to stay at a nine-member body.

The 6-3 vote came after vigorous debate at the board’s Feb. 8 retreat.

Dr. Melvin Johnson

Dr. Melvin Johnson

Board Chairman Melvin Johnson, District 6; John Coleman, District 1; Dr. Joyce Morley, District 7; Dr. Michael Erwin, District 3; Karen Carter, District 8; and David Campbell, District 5, favored keeping the board at its current size.

Marshall Orson, District 2; Jim McMahan, District 4; and Thad Mayfield, District 9, voted no.

Morley, one of six people appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal in March 2013 to replace six suspended members, said the board should not forget the strides the nine-district panel has made toward solving some of the school system’s governance, budget and student performance issues and that now is not the time to change its size.

“We are under a mandate to turn things around with SACS telling us what we ought to do and where we ought to be, and our ship is still limping trying to get to the other shore,” Morley said.

She was making reference to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ recent upgrade of the district’s accreditation status from “probation” to “warned” and the work still to be done to regain full accreditation.

Orson said opposing the law could do more harm than good.

“You can ask for anything, but if it’s unwise you run the risk of ill will from the Legislature,” he said.

But Johnson said lawmakers invited the board into the conversation.

“It’s only a recommendation that we’re giving to the Legislature,” Johnson said. “So if you want to keep it at nine, let’s write it down as one of our suggestions.”

Mayfield said a significant number of people want the smaller board.

“You can’t undermine that,” he said.

DeKalb House delegation Chairman Howard Mosby confirmed that he asked the board for its input as lawmakers draw district boundaries according to the law.

In 2011, the state Senate passed SB 79 that required DeKalb to reduce the number of School Board seats to no more than seven. But the bill made no provisions to accomplish this in light of the fact that the members’ terms went beyond 2012. It would have been illegal to put any of the incumbents out of office.

In 2012, the House passed HB 1290 that delayed implementation of SB 79 until the end of 2014. The bill also reapportioned districts 1 through 7 and set the end of the terms of the seats up for election in 2012 to 2014. Thus all seats become vacant on Dec. 31, 2014. Districts 8 and 9 were already properly apportioned so they were not addressed. New district maps were submitted and approved for preclearance by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Mosby said lawmakers are racing the clock to finalize boundaries of the seven approved School Board districts in this year’s shortened General Assembly session – a schedule now even tighter due to the snow and ice storm.

“So we were interested in the board’s ideas and concepts,” he said. “We felt their input could be helpful.”

Carter, who voted to keep nine members, said there was more at stake besides the number of board seats.

“We keep telling our young people to dream big. We risk our credibility if we don’t do the same.”