Why It Makes Sense for Demond Means to Limit Local School Governance

Bertis Downs’ recent iPhone “broadcast” from the Library of Congress is the third high-profile contribution to an intense ongoing discussion of how the Clarke County School District is faring as a charter system. The first one, by Karen Gerow, taking dead aim at CCSD Superintendent Demond Means as “autocratic,” ran in the Athens Banner-Herald a few weeks ago and prompted the second, a vigorous defense of Means by Tommie Farmer in Flagpole.

Imputations of racism and white privilege were duly entered. While those ugly attitudes can’t ever be completely discounted, I’m not going to pursue them here.

My only expertise in this area is that of a taxpayer—I’m really good at paying them. In that capacity, I think that Means’ performance has to be seen in the context of the deeply flawed charter any CCSD superintendent has to operate under, no matter what demographic pigeonhole he or she fits into. In particular, the charter contains critical ambiguities whose resolution pushes any superintendent toward the “top-down” administrative approach opposed by Gerow and Downs.

A flashpoint in the published and social-media debates about all this is a central feature of the district’s charter: local school governance teams (LSGTs). They, or something like them, are mandated by state law for charter systems to achieve more decentralized decision-making than is the norm in traditional schools.

The state has made decentralization a key element of charter systems to create space at the local level for community involvement in schools. The idea is that kids do better when the surrounding community has a strong sense of ownership of their school and a robust commitment to students’ success.

That’s certainly a plausible assumption, and there’s at least anecdotal evidence favoring it. For example, three years ago, Rebecca Burns, writing for Atlanta magazine, profiled a charter school in Clayton County where mostly-minority students were thriving after struggling elsewhere. The school was under-resourced in all kinds of ways, but what made the difference for its students was how heavily invested everyone, from families to staff, was in its success.

Decentralization is the state’s prescription for driving this kind of transformation. The Georgia code says districts seeking charter status must explain how they will go about “maximizing school level governance and the involvement of parents, teachers and community members in such governance.”

CCSD’s response to that mandate is the LSGTs, which our charter says shall “maximize school-level governance, uphold the Charter System’s mission and vision, set policy for each Charter System School, ensure effective organizational planning, and ensure that Performance-based Goals and Measurable Objectives… are met.” The “Performance-based Goals and Measurable Objectives” are the metrics our schools have to meet in order for the district to retain its charter status.

Here’s the problem: I’m told by people who’ve been trained for service on LSGTs that there’s confusion about their role in district operations, a report confirmed by the current debate about Means’ administrative style. Some believe the LSGTs are independent centers of authority in their respective schools. Others believe they’re merely advisory to the superintendent, to whom they convey “input” about the matters within their purview. And wonky people like me can find support for both views in the charter itself.

Now, if I’m a superintendent responsible for implementing the charter, I have to resolve this conflict in one or the other direction. If I go with the “input” story, then I’m exposed to complaints like the ones from Gerow and Downs that I’m betraying the state’s “decentralization” mandate. But if I go with the “independent authority” story, I may end up even worse off. If it’s up to the LSGTs, among other things, to “ensure” that their respective schools come up to par, I can’t just leave them to their own devices. Instead, I’m in the awkward—not to say untenable—position of having to somehow ensure that they ensure that. I have to figure this out, because if the schools miss their metrics, I’m the one who gets fired, not the LSGT members.

So, leaving Means aside, what do you think superintendents are going to do to get out of the corner our charter backs them into? Isn’t it a pretty safe bet that they’ll prefer hits from the likes of Gerow and Downs to surrendering their career prospects as hostage to as many independent centers of authority as there are schools in the district? Wouldn’t a rational person in Means’ shoes be under tremendous pressure to adopt the “input” story about the LSGTs over the “independent authority” story?

If there really is a problem here, we need look no further than the charter itself to identify the people who are responsible for fixing it. The charter was signed on the district’s behalf by the chairperson of our board of education (at the time, Charles Worthy, and now Jared Bybee) and the superintendent (then, Philip Lanoue; now, Means).