AJC runs an editorial and two opinion pieces on upcoming Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education race – Financial Deconstruction piece is included [Updated]

In today’s Atlanta Journal Constitution, the editorial page is composed of three opinion pieces and includes one I submitted. The three opinion pieces are:

Tom Tidwell (AL-8) on his Facebook page highlights a key conclusion from Downey’s editorial:

The school board must find a leader who promises more than reform. Atlanta has had decades of reform. What it needs is change.

Weigh your vote carefully. You want the most qualified people elected without political or special interest agendas. Scrutinize their backgrounds and the groups that are backing them. Thoroughly understand what each individual brings to the board in terms of expertise and their willingness to collaborate and work as a team.

All are behind the AJC pay wall, however, the opinion piece as I submitted it to the AJC (the original was slightly edited in today’s AJC to accommodate space constraints) is as follows:

In their first few months in office, the newly elected Board of Education will make a number of major decisions including selecting a new superintendent, addressing significant budget issues and establishing the operational model for the system as a whole.

By far the most important decision is the selection of a new superintendent who will provide dynamic leadership for a school system moving beyond recent failures and scandals of the past. And there appears to be a consensus on this issue among the candidates – the new superintendent must be a visionary to transform the status quo; be a great communicator; be confident in their ability to hire a strong executive staff; and be collaborative in dealing with the Board and the community at large. This by itself is no small feat, but more will be required. The new superintendent will have to align with the strategic vision and operational philosophy of the newly elected Board. Based on the majority view of the candidates, the new superintendent will have to share their desire to transition authority from the central office into the hands of the school principals, who are most attuned to the student’s needs.

The Board’s second challenge is the development of a budget for next year. Based on the campaign statements of many of the candidates, the new Board will likely want a significant reallocation of resources away from administration and into the classroom. Additionally, there is a strong call for reducing the deficit spending, ending teacher furloughs and granting teachers their first pay raise in five years. These cost reduction and reallocations amount to $40-50 million out of an operating budget of approximately $590 million – this will not be an easy task. This may be further complicated as the new Board will likely realize that cost reductions in the administrative and operating functions will be difficult to achieve without reducing the cost inefficiencies created by a number of small schools that were slated for closure during the last redistricting, but remain open today.

The Board’s third major decision is the selection of the operational model under which it will be governed. Each district in GA will have to choose one of the five options available – and they run from a “traditional model” which is the current status quo; a “charter system” in which each school operates more independently, but is still closely aligned with the central administration; or a “system of charters” in which each school or cluster of schools operates under a separate contract with APS and the State. As noted above, the current candidates appear to have a strong disposition towards granting greater autonomy and accountability to the schools, in which case the “charter system” is the likely choice. However, the new superintendent will have a strong voice in this decision and therefore must be aligned with the new Board at the time the selection is made.

There is one additional item that the new Board should address as it has a strong and direct impact on its ability to fund the necessary activities in the classroom. The $550 unfunded pension liability that was incurred decades ago takes $50 million annually (rising to $74 million) from funds that would otherwise be used in the classroom. There are a several alternatives for how this liability can be addressed, but just “kicking the can down the road” as the previous Boards have done is irresponsible. There are no pleasant alternatives, but if the Board wants a fresh start with a new superintendent and adequate resources to address many systemic problems, they should resolve the problem and move forward.

All the above will be a daunting task for the new Board – and their decisions will impact educational outcomes of APS students for many years. With so many tough issues to address, many view this as the most important school board election in the history of Atlanta. They are right, and the results will determine if APS is set on a positive (or negative) trajectory for years to come.

[Follow me on Twitter @Financial_Decon]

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