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Let’s avert crisis with school board and do so without upsetting apple cart of solid student performance

The situation with the school board and superintendent is still shy of crisis level, but has reached a point where something has to be done, if for no other reason than to calm the amount of divisiveness in the community.

For those blissfully unaware or under a rock, here’s the situation: in the past two years, two superintendents have been essentially fired with the board not providing even a whiff of the reasons for removal. Two weeks ago, a political group, Impact Pickens, presented a cache of texts mainly from the board chair to the current superintendent, but also to/from other board members, showing plans to get rid of the second of the superintendents as early as October and presenting an underhanded, cavalier approach to removing the leader who had only been hired months earlier.

The board shelled out more than $400,000 to buy Dr. Rick Townsend out of his contract in February and spent $178,000 to buy his predecessor Dr. Carlton Wilson out in December of 2020. Roughly $600,000 of tax dollars down the drain.

As a point to consider, in Georgia any employer, including a school board, may fire someone simply because they don’t like him. They may have had to battle over parting compensation, but as far as the laws and state agencies go, telling the past two superintendents “we don’t like the way you are running the schools, you’re fired” is legal. But even that didn’t happen, at least not publicly. The school board gets an “F” in public communication. There is no law that silences them - that is a tired and false excuse.

The history of our school board over the past 10 years is chock full of short tenures of both paid leaders and elected board members, political rifts, squabbling and backstabbing. To state the obvious, this has to change. Here is what we suggest, which falls short of Impact Pickens’ demands for three board members and superintendent to go.

First, we have in place the perfect body to deal with this, the grand jury. For those who need a civics reminder,  grand juries in Georgia were set up to investigate governments’ operations for any reason, not just criminal action.

Section 15-12-71 of Georgia code spells this out: “Duties of grand jury - the grand jury shall, whenever deemed necessary by eight or more of its members, appoint a committee of its members to inspect or investigate any county office or … the county board of education, or the county school superintendent or any of the records, accounts, property, or operations of any of the foregoing.”

This isn’t done often and it usually comes from the top down; a government official starts the process, but the power is with the people (the grand jurors). If you are among the current grand jurors, be active, tell the DA’s office and judge to convene your group and take an unbiased look at the school district predicament. 

The conclusion here (according to one legal expert familiar with grand juries who did not want to be named) would likely be limited to a report. It seems unlikely anything reported thus far rises to the level of criminal charges against anyone. But that report from an unbiased group with the power to summon people to speak could clear the air, set the record straight and offer recommendations to move ahead.

Second, we’ll cut to the chase -  board chair Sue Finley needs to resign. She was in charge when all hell broke loose. The school board meeting on January 18 was the nastiest gathering of any government group we have seen; never has a contingent of deputies been called in to secure an official gathering here in modern history. 

Just like the presidents of groups, coaches of teams, CEO’s and captains of ship, when your organization goes badly into the ditch, the leader has to go – if for no other reason than to lay groundwork for a new course.

In this particular case, Finley’s own texts add to our call for her resignation. They simply went too far in advocating and celebrating for a change in the superintendent position. 

With the departure of the board chair, the balance of power shifts dramatically to an even playing field. The board would then have two clear camps of two members each in regard to the superintendent. Bring in an independent fifth board member, (perhaps follow a grand jury recommendation) and immediately there is a new board dynamic and hopefully a chance to see if they can get traction to move forward together. This could include looking at the current superintendent’s position but giving him a fair chance to present his case.

The calls for three board members to resign along with the superintendent simply throws too much into turmoil. And based on our past history, the revolving door of board members and superintendents is the cause of the problems, not the solution.

Finally, we would like to end on a positive note, which may seem impossible, but it’s not. Pickens schools over the past decade have outperformed most similar school systems in academics. We beat our neighboring systems with graduation rate; our SAT averages are solid; our schools are safe; our graduates are succeeding; our teachers are well-paid by state standards and holding proper certifications. 

Despite the unceasing turf war at the central office, the student body, as a whole, is thriving. Of course there is always room for improvement but most students are well served. 

The most important thing our school system does (educate students), it is doing very well. For people who want to upturn the whole apple cart, don’t forget this.