In a teleconference with high-achieving students from DeKalb County last month, a Tucker High star student-athlete voiced his worries that he might lose his scholarship offers from Stanford and Vanderbilt universities.
This young man, who has worked hard and made the right decisions, found himself caught in the crosshairs of squabbling adults.
Other students voiced similar concerns: “Will I be denied admission to college?” “Will I be allowed to transfer to another school district?”
These students’ worries echoed my own because an accrediting agency had placed the DeKalb school system on probation, a step before loss of accreditation.
The state of Georgia has no power over a school system’s accreditation. But it does have to live with serious consequences if a school system loses it: students that out-of-state colleges refuse to accept, plummeting property values in the county and a nuclear winter for economic development.
I can’t allow that outcome. Severe consequences sometimes demand severe solutions, and state law provides for only one such solution: removal of the school board by the governor.
The state certainly must do everything it can to avoid removing elected officials who aren’t convicted of a crime or under indictment. That’s why, when these cases reach my desk, we must consider the gravity of the situation we face and evaluate the safeguards that ensure board members aren’t removed capriciously.
In order for a school board to risk probation, it has to ignore numerous warnings from the accrediting agency. Probation means the school board has reached a point where it can no longer function properly.
Once that step is taken, the school board faces a hearing in front of the state Board of Education. In the DeKalb case, the Board of Education studied all the facts in two meetings, one an exhaustive 14-hour hearing. The state Board of Education unanimously recommended removal of six members of the county’s school board.
I accepted that recommendation and immediately created a diverse nominating panel to sift through applications and present me with high-quality finalists for the six open board seats. The panel studied 403 applications and interviewed 63 candidates.
The six new board members – who now join the remaining three board members first elected in November – have sterling credentials. I’m convinced we’ve put in place a team that can work cooperatively and get the school system back on track.
Georgians can certainly debate whether we need to improve our method for rescuing school systems on probation. Some object to removing a board based solely on governance issues, and I’m open to tying the trigger to student achievement instead. But until there’s a better way, I did the one thing I could do to save the 99,000 innocent students in the state’s third-largest district and the economy of the metro Atlanta region.
Nathan Deal is the 82nd governor of Georgia.