Former state school chief John Barge can't escape politics even in coastal Georgia. Barge will step down as superintendent of McIntosh County Schools when his contract expires in June after increasing tensions with a fractious school board.
Speaking on the phone from McIntosh where he was dealing with icy weather Thursday, Barge said the school board has failed to vote on extending his contract despite several closed-door meetings about it. "There has been no vote, but, at the same time, there has been no feedback provided to me so I can't assume anything. It is too risky." Barge says he will be looking for a new post and prefers to remain in Georgia.
A Republican who managed to be elected Georgia school superintendent in 2010 without the support of the GOP establishment, Barge forged his own path leading the Department of Education. But he paid a steep price for failing to follow Gov. Nathan Deal and the Republican Legislature in the 2012 battle over the charter school amendment. Barge said he could not support the amendment because it diverted funding from schools struggling with years of state budget cuts.
Frustrated with legislative policies and chronic underfunding, Barge ran for governor in 2014. After placing third in the Republican primary, Barge took the job in McIntosh County Schools in 2015. With about 1,600 students, the district straddles I-95 in southeast Georgia and includes Sapelo Island.
As superintendent in McIntosh, Barge found a political maelstrom and a divided school board. The school board ran afoul of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and its rules required to maintain accreditation, causing the district to receive a dreaded “under review” designation, one step removed from accreditation loss. SACS accredits thousands of schools worldwide, including 97 percent of public schools in Georgia.
McIntosh could have its school board removed by the governor and replaced by new members as occurred in DeKalb County in 2013 and in Dooly County in 2016. As required under state law, the state Board of Education will hold a March 22 hearing on whether to recommend suspension of the McIntosh school board to Gov. Nathan Deal. (You can see the legal documents from the state board's September hearing on McIntosh here. At that time, the McIntosh board won a continuance.)
The problems in McIntosh predate Barge's arrival but the school board has continued to flout what SACS and AdvancED consider good governance. According to the Florida Times-Union: "Although AdvancED may have received complaints dating back before Barge ever came to work as superintendent, the most recent of a string of negative developments came in September 2016. That’s when the school board removed Barry Lollis as McIntosh Academy principal and transferred him to the alternative school."
This case is complicated by the historic friction between Deal and Barge, raising questions about how willing the governor would be to act. But there are concerns among some teachers in McIntosh, one of whom told me, "John Barge is a good man who doesn’t deserve this treatment. He truly cares for the students and has accomplished some pretty incredible things in his short tenure here. My question is why does it take so long to remove a board that has so clearly violated their code of ethics? This needs to be exposed. We have great teachers here and good kids who deserve better."
If the state board recommends removal of the McIntosh officials and Deal complies, would Barge possibly remain in the district? "I really can't speculate on that," said Barge. "To be honest, timing is important so I can't wait for the state board to make a decision to start looking for a job. That could be a long time."