City DopeNews

What’s Wrong With the Clarke County School Board

If there’s one thing Athens-Clarke County commissioners are not, it’s passive. They’re always digging into the minutia of issues, sometimes late into the night (and sometimes getting too bogged down in details) or quizzing staff or ordering up studies and studies of studies to get more information (or, sometimes, to put off tough decisions). Heck, a few weeks ago one commissioner, who is not an engineer, sat down and designed a road.

In whatever ways the ACC Commission can frustrate citizens (and yes, occasionally journalists), the Clarke County Board of Education is the exact opposite. I’ve covered a few school board meetings here and there for years but really only started attending regularly in February, when the Cedar Shoals High School sexual assault news broke. It’s becoming increasingly apparent to me that the school board is little more than a rubber stamp for the superintendent.

A couple of relatively minor incidents from the board’s May 12 meeting jumped out at me. On one item, board member Ovita Thornton asked a question, and Superintendent Philip Lanoue (rather condescendingly, I thought) told her the answer was on the next page of her packet. Rather than give her a chance to read it, board President Charles Worthy immediately called the question. Thornton abstained. On another vote, fellow board member Linda Davis also abstained because, as she put it, “I still have questions.” Where any ACC commissioner would have kept lobbing questions at the county manager and probably put off a vote if answers weren’t forthcoming, school board members tend to simply defer to the superintendent.

Lanoue and his people tightly control the flow of information to the board, the press and the public. For example, I can pick up the phone and call most any ACC official directly, but media inquiries regarding the school district go through its official spokesperson. ACC posts its full budget online; citizens who wish to scrutinize the CCSD budget only have access to Lanoue’s PowerPoint presentation, which is prettier but includes far fewer numbers.

It’s come up in board discussions several times that school board members are not micromanagers. Their role, as Worthy likes to say, is to make policy and hold the superintendent accountable. But 99 percent of the time, the board signs off on whatever policy Lanoue proposes. And how can the board hold him accountable when he has a three-year contract that was quietly renewed last month?

“I don’t understand the need to renew the superintendent’s contract when he had two years to go already,” Walter Swanson said during public input last Thursday.

There’s a certain groupthink, too, as when others pushed board member Greg Davis to vote in favor of the tentative budget earlier this month. Davis stuck to his guns, the tentative budget passed 8–1, and the world didn’t end. When almost every vote is unanimous, that’s not a sign of a healthy board.

School Discipline: There are exceptions, one of them being the board-driven process to evaluate discipline and attendance policies. About 200 people attended a facilitator-led public input session on those topics last month. The data from that forum is being compiled and will be given to the board and posted on the district website this week, according to facilitator Joe Whorton. 

West Broad Garden: CCSD has put on hold its unpopular plan to pave over a community garden as part of a renovation project to convert the long-vacant West Broad School into offices. But the district intends to cut the pay of students who work in the garden.

At a meeting of the BOE’s property committee meeting, district administrators provided the Athens Land Trust—which operates the West Broad Market Garden on the West Broad School grounds—with a letter guaranteeing that the garden will remain on the property for at least three years. The ALT needed the guarantee in order to pursue federal grants. “If they’re going to put some money into your program, they want to know you’re going to be there for some time,” Associate Superintendent Ted Gilbert said.

Gilbert told the committee that the planning process for the West Broad School renovations will take years. First, the district is participating in a “feasibility study” on revitalizing the Hancock Corridor/Rocksprings area, along with a stakeholder group including the ALT, Athens-Clarke County government, Athens Housing Authority and neighborhood residents. The four institutional participants have already committed $10,000 each to the study, and on May 12 the school board approved spending another $5,000. When the study is complete, the district will appoint a stakeholder group to provide input on the West Broad renovations and hire an architect. Lanoue compared the process to the H.T. Edwards renovations, which involved dozens of alumni and took about two years to plan.

Although the garden has gained a reprieve, Lanoue has proposed cutting funding for the garden in the district’s 2017 budget, which the school board will also be discussing tonight. Lanoue has zeroed out funding for the Young Urban Farmers program, which pays students—many of them from low-income families—to work in the garden. Students could still work, but they would receive class credit instead of money. ALT Executive Director Heather Benham said in a letter to board members that she would seek grant funding to continue paying student farmers.

The Young Urban Farmers program’s $40,000 will be redirected to the Great Promise Partnership, a mentoring and job-training program for students who are at risk of dropping out founded by former Georgia Department of Community Affairs commissioner Mike Beatty.

Several speakers at the May 12 school board meeting urged district officials to keep the Young Urban Farmers program, noting the CCSD has won accolades for its farm-to-school sustainability and agriculture classes. “Please don’t reverse course,” Bertis Downs said. “Please keep going. Expand it.” 

Barber Street: The school district also voted last week to put up for sale a vacant school on Barber Street near the water treatment plant. The school, currently used for storage, was built during the segregation era over the objections of African American residents, who didn’t want it because it was so close to the chicken plant, according to board member Vernon Payne. “I went there for two years,” Linda Davis said. “After the first week, you got used to it.”

The property has been appraised at $270,000, Gilbert said, and at least two potential buyers are interested—the ACC government and Canopy, the trapeze studio. Parts of it need a lot of work, but whoever buys it, Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation Executive Director Amy Kissane told Flagpole she will push to preserve the historic building.

Food Trucks: Just down Barber is the Jittery Joe’s roaster, where local food trucks have gathered for two successful street fairs with art and food vendors in the past month. One of them, Holy Crepe, has become the first food truck to apply for a permit to set up shop outside City Hall once a week under a program the ACC Commission approved last year. The truck, which serves sweet and savory crepes, will be on Hancock Avenue from 11 a.m.–2 p.m. and “late night” on Thursdays, according to owner Saphir Grici.