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Elected chairman won’t change much

Even if plan is implemented, superintendent still will be running the system

POSTED: October 25, 2009 12:09 a.m.
TOM REED/The Times

Kelvin Simmons speaks at a Gainesville School Board meeting in this file photo. With Simmons are fellow board members Sammy Smith, left, and Willie Mitchell.

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While only Gainesville residents of Wards 1 and 4 can vote in the contested school board races on Nov. 3, all city residents are being asked to vote on a referendum to help local legislators gauge whether constituents are interested in electing a school board chairman.

Traditionally, the five Gainesville Board of Education members appoint one member as board chairman. The chairman’s vote carries no more weight than other members, but he or she also presides over meetings, works with board members and the superintendent to set the agenda and acts as a spokesperson for the board.

The nonbinding referendum, if approved, would jump start legislative discussion about how Gainesville citizens want the board to operate with an elected chairman.

Tony Arasi, director of professional development for Georgia School Boards Association, said an elected chairman has no more power than an appointed one. Nearly 30 of Georgia’s 180 local school districts have an elected chairman, he said.

Reasoning behind the referendum

Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, said the issue of electing a chairman was raised last summer as the board debated whether to dismiss the former superintendent while coping with a puzzling multimillion-dollar deficit. At the time, the school board had not yet appointed a chairman, even though the board’s charter states a chairman should be appointed at the first meeting in January.

“It’s all about leadership,” Rogers said. “I think the problems and challenges the school board has had in the past, someone needs to lead the board and that needs to be a chairman who is elected. I think what’s happened with the former superintendent and the deficit, and I’m not blaming them, but the situations we’ve been in with the (12 percent) tax increase, that chairman needs to be someone with knowledge.”

A change in the way the Gainesville school board chairman is determined requires a change in the Gainesville Board of Education’s charter. The General Assembly, governor and U.S. Department of Justice must approve the altered charter for it to become law.

Rogers said the Nov. 3 referendum is simply a poll to see what residents want from local government. If voters approve the referendum, local legislators, including Sen. Lee Hawkins, and Reps. Doug Collins and James Mills, will initiate community discussion to determine how Gainesville residents want to proceed.

Many questions still left unanswered

Eric Oliver, a former Gainesville school board candidate and father of two children in the school system, said he has many questions about the effects of the referendum, such as how would the chairman be elected since board members are elected in alternating years? Would there be five board members and a sixth person to serve as chairman, as in the Jefferson city school system?  

“I think it’s important to have these questions answered before we put it on the ballot,” he said. “... I think the process works now, but I think it would be important to define the parameters and put it on the ballot and let the community decide whether they want to change the current system or not.”

Rogers said the idea of an elected chairman is still in its infancy, and legislators want to work with residents to devise a plan of action following the referendum.

“We’ll have to do some research on it and have some meetings to discuss it,” he said. “What I prefer is to let the voters and citizens decide what type of government they would want. We’ll have some town hall meetings and discussions about it. There’s nothing that will be done instantly; that’s not the plan at all.”

Rogers said if citizens approve the referendum this fall, another elected school board chairman referendum could appear on next November’s ballot when voter turnout is expected to be much higher. By then, legislators could have a more detailed plan of action to enact the referendum, he said.

What will change with an elected chairman?

Arasi said the Georgia School Boards Association supports both appointed and elected chairmen, but wants to caution communities that an elected chairman has no more power than a board-appointed chairman. The duties of the position will remain the same, he said.

“As our organization sees it, we would see it as an advantage only if the local community sees it as an advantage,” he said. “One of the issues you want to look at in this situation is, is the current model serving the community well? ... Our thinking is, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We would encourage the community to consider this, as well.”

Gainesville school board Chairman David Syfan said he is willing to work within both systems.

“The proposal to me is more about voters’ perception of the position than it is about the position having any real significant power,” he said. “... I think I and any of the board members can work under any other system and will do whatever voters want to do.”

Push back from Gainesville educators and board members

Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said she has concerns that if a chairman is elected, the citizenry could have the misconception that the chairman is “running” the school system and has more power than other board members.

The Georgia Constitution states that it is the job of the superintendent and school system staff to run the day-to-day operations of the school system. The board chairman’s job is to guide the school system with policies formed by the entire school board and to levy ad valorem taxes.

Dyer said also she has qualms about an elected chairman using the position to propel his or her own political agenda.

“I have seen evidence that individuals run for the school board chairman so that they can advance their own personal agenda, and they do so by being the spokesperson,” she said in an e-mail. “Therefore, communicating the unified beliefs, values and goals of a school system becomes skewed if the board chairman is speaking for him- or herself and not the entire district.”

Gainesville school board member Maria Calkins said she thinks the board operates well now with five equal school board members.

She said, too, that she thinks Syfan has done well as chairman.

“I think it works because we are able to come to a consensus and an agreement as to who represents us and who we can trust to get us through the meetings efficiently. Because we made that decision, that person really does represent what we say because we’re the ones who picked that person,” she said.

Guy Dean Benson has been serving on the Jefferson City Board of Education for 17 years. She said she believes the elected chairman process works well for her board and provides more accountability to the citizenry.

“All the citizens have a say in the election of the chairman, and he is our leader,” she said. “... He doesn’t represent just one district or ward, he represents the whole city.”

Early voting ends Friday. Election Day is Nov. 3.



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