The Clarke County School District has a massive imbalance in how successfully it educates white and black children, but even as Superintendent Demond Means is highlighting the stunning gap, school board members and members of the public are mired in an inside-baseball political dispute with racial overtones of its own.
At last week’s Clarke County Board of Education meeting, Means again addressed a recent report that black students are disproportionately disciplined, and are three times less likely to be proficient in math or language than white students. The gap is even wider at some individual schools.
“When I saw the data,” Means said, and paused, collecting himself, “the data forces you to cry. It’s that bad.”
The only way to solve the problem, Means said, is with a renewed sense of urgency and unity—which was not on display Oct. 12.
While Means only obliquely referred to Phil Lanoue—“It’s not going to collectively help us move forward if we keep bringing up the past,” he said—his name continues to come up. One wonders just what, exactly, our supposedly data-driven former national superintendent of the year was doing, other than jetting around the country attending conferences, giving interviews to national publications and applying for better jobs.
In any case, Lanoue is gone, Means is here, and he’s the one who’s going to have to deal with this gaping divide. “I believe that a child of color in Clarke County can do the same work as a child in Oconee County who may be white,” he said. “I believe that in my soul.”
Oconee County has the highest test scores in the state, but its demographics lend themselves to high achievement. The challenge in more diverse Clarke County is how to educate all children—including those who are homeless, those who come to school hungry, those who have problems at home, those whose parents are themselves not well educated—at the same level as upper-middle-class children with highly engaged parents.
Meanwhile, though, the board and much of the public are caught up in a political squabble over whether board President Charles Worthy should be allowed to continue in that role, or whether board members should rotate into leadership positions. The optics are bad—Worthy is the highest-ranking black elected officials in any branch of local government—and African Americans have accused board members of instituting a new policy as a back-channel way of removing him from power. “You seem to have a problem with two African Americans in leadership positions,” UGA history professor John Morrow told the board. “That’s the way it looks.”
Board members who supported the policy—including Ovita Thornton, who is black—called such accusations hurtful. “It was never intended to be a personal change,” Vice President Sarah Ellis said at Thursday’s meeting. “This is very painful for me. It’s so far from anything that was ever intended.
“It wasn’t intended to be a policy about a person,” she continued, noting that she is affected by the policy along with Worthy. “It was intended to be a policy of leadership rotation.”
The policy, approved in August, bars school board members from serving consecutive terms as president or vice president. It was part of a slew of board governance reforms recommended by a consultant brought in by interim superintendent Jack Parrish. And more are coming, Ellis said—Means brought his own policies from the Mequon-Thiensville district in Wisconsin, and they are “dramatically” different from Clarke’s. “It worked very well for them, and they were very successful,” Ellis said. Those policies will be discussed at an upcoming board retreat, then work their way through the policy committee to the full board.
Ellis proposed an amendment to the succession policy pushing back implementation until 2018, allowing Worthy to serve a seventh two-year term as president. This satisfied Linda Davis, the policy’s most vocal opponent on the board. The lone “no” vote came from Greg Davis, who did not want to revisit the policy at all.
But it did not satisfy all of the policy’s critics. “I don’t like that limit, and I also still believe that everybody through all of this already had an opportunity to run” for board president, said Tommie Farmer, a member of the local NAACP chapter, which has condemned the policy.
And so the issue of who chairs the meeting and for how long will most likely continue to distract from the true work of closing the student achievement gap. “I feel bad about that data, but I feel worse that more people called me about [the term-limit policy] than that data,” Thornton said.
“Somewhere along the line, we’re going to have to build some trust amongst ourselves,” she said.
Odds and Ends
• Hallelujah! The first leg of Firefly Trail, between downtown and Dudley Park, opens Friday, Oct. 20. A dedication ceremony will be held at 3:30 p.m. at the trailhead on East Broad Street next to Weaver D’s. Bring a bike and a helmet if you want to take part in the inaugural ride.
• The Georgia Power office on Prince Avenue—along with every other customer service office statewide—closed Oct. 12 because only 10 percent of customers now pay their bills in person, according to company spokeswoman Ashley West. Customers can pay their bills online at georgiapower.com, by mail, by calling 1-800-672-2402, by texting “gppay” to 99123 or in person at Kroger, Publix, Walmart, Rite-Aid, Ingles and Regions Bank. Georgia Power has not decided what to do with the building itself, West said.
• Discount grocery store Aldi is moving into a vacant 22,000 square-foot commercial storefront on Gaines School Road that was most recently home to Omni Club and, before that, Food Lion. Work is expected to start within the next couple of months.
• The ACC T-SPLOST Advisory Committee officially launched its promotional campaign last week for a 1 percent sales tax to fund $110 million worth of road repavings, trails, transit, bike lanes, sidewalks and other infrastructure. Check out the website, tsplostathens.com, for more information.
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