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42 Vie for Nine Board Seats in Atlanta Free-For-All

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ATLANTA--When school board candidates gathered for a forum here last week, their sheer numbers prompted the event's organizers to call for a "jump-ball format,'' letting questions be answered by those who leaped first to respond.

It seemed fitting, for this year the entire Atlanta school board may be up for grabs.

Frustrated with a board they view as acrimonious, fiscally irresponsible, and unconcerned with education, business, civic, and labor groups have mobilized to recruit and back slates of candidates and to get city residents to the polls.

As of last week, 42 candidates were vying for the board's nine seats. Many spoke of unseating not just the incumbents, but also Superintendent Lester W. Butts or anyone else they view as obstructing school reform.

"Our schools are at the bottom of the list. I blame the school board for that,'' said Timothy McDonald 3rd, a co-chairman of Erase the Board, a grassroots organization bent on unseating every incumbent in the campaign.

"Up to a few years ago, nobody cared about this school board,'' said Mr. McDonald, the pastor of the First Iconium Baptist Church. "Finally, we started ringing the bells.''

Along with the candidates endorsed byMr. McDonald's group, voters will also have the option of selecting from two slates of candidates offered by the district's two teachers' unions, two slates compiled by business-oriented groups, and a slate picked by the Georgia National Organization for Women.

There is also a group of candidates backed by gay and lesbian activists, and a slate of black contenders endorsed by the city's powerful Shrine of the Black Madonna religious organization. Other candidates are running on a platform of allowing public funds to be spent on tuition at private schools.

"I am not sure if we have quality or just quantity,'' lamented MaryAnne F. Gaunt, the executive director of Apple Corps, a nonprofit organization that hosted last week's forum.

Board Bickering

The meetings of the current board are so often characterized by anger and insult that their broadcasts on WPBA, the local public-television station, appear to have built up a cult following of sorts.

Board members often can be seen impugning each other's motives, and on occasion have referred to each other as animals.

At last month's meeting, D.F. Glover, a black member, called the board's president, Joseph G. Martin, who is white, a "buttoned-down racist'' and likened him to Bull Connor, the Birmingham, Ala., sheriff who gained notoriety for his abuse of civil-rights protesters during the 1960's.

A recent survey commissioned by Apple Corps found that nearly a third of respondents had watched a broadcast of a board meeting during the past year. Their most common observation--offered by 49 percent--was about the bickering and contentiousness among members and disorder in the meetings.

"If you go to a school board meeting of the Atlanta public schools, you rarely hear students mentioned,'' asserted Mr. McDonald, echoing the view of many other board observers.

Due in part to board inaction, "our school system is about 20 years behind in terms of its instructional techniques and strategies,'' said Anita L. Brooks, the president of the 2,500-member Atlanta Federation of Teachers, which is not backing any incumbents.

The board members--six elected by ward, three elected at large--have also been criticized for meeting too frequently and for meddling in routine management decisions.

Two Members Targeted

Of the incumbents in the race, the chief targets of pundits and political-action committees have been Mr. Glover, who represents a single-member district, and Ina Evans, an at-large member.

Ms. Evans, an African-American, is known for her outspoken defense of disgruntled employees and minority contractors.

The attacks leveled at the two members have been harsh. Caricatures published in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution this month depicted them as "Beavis and Butthead,'' the idiotic cartoon characters shown on MTV: Music Television.

In publishing its endorsements, the newspaper called Mr. Glover "the most disruptive, destructive person on the board,'' and referred to Ms. Evans as having "a history of divisiveness and glaring ethical lapses.''

Mr. Glover did not return calls asking for comment.

Appearing at last week's forum, Ms. Evans appeared undaunted. "I have always voted my convictions, and I will continue to vote my convictions,'' she said, adding, "What I say, and how I say it, is my business.''

Both Mr. Glover and Ms. Evans continue to be backed by the 2,400-member Atlanta Association of Educators, whose executive director, Bobbie J. Sharp, last week praised them for their willingness to ruffle feathers and "their consistent support for employees.''

Even Mr. McDonald of Erase the Board, who advocates unseating all of the incumbents, said Mr. Glover and Ms. Evans are being treated unfairly.

Mr. McDonald argued that Mr. Martin, the board president, who generally commands a thin majority of members, is equally to blame for the problems of the schools.

Turning Around Low Turnout

Four of the five incumbents in the race have been in office more than a dozen years. It has been at least that long, several local leaders said, since the school board races have stirred so much interest.

In the last school board elections, in 1989, only a third of those who went to the polls bothered to cast ballots for board members, according to a study commissioned by the Metropolitan Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.

Michael H. Trotter, the chairman of Good Government Atlanta, a public-interest lobby, last week blamed the long-term decline in interest in the board elections on the flight of much of the city's middle class to the suburbs. That has led to a drop in the district's enrollment to 59,550 students, or about half what it was 20 years ago.

With the general public staying away, the teachers' unions have been able to wield a disproportionate influence at the polls and in the development of board policy, contended Lesley S. Grady, who heads the chamber of commerce's educational efforts.

The Alliance for Education, a coalition of local organizations seeking to increase voter participation in the board elections, recently asked city officials to move the board races to the top of the city election ballot, ahead of the mayoral and city-council races, to give them more prominence.

The Alliance request was rejected, however, after the city attorney ruled that the mayoral and council races were more important. Some board candidates have devised slogans they hope will help supportersremember their punch numbers far down the ballot.

Candidates must obtain an absolute majority of the votes in their districts or in the at-large contest to win. As a result, many of the board races are not expected to be decided in next week's voting, but will move to run-off elections among the leading vote-getters on Nov. 23.

Personnel Policies Assailed

Good Government Atlanta, the Journal and Constitution, and EduPAC, a political-action group organized by the chamber of commerce, have endorsed nearly identical slates. Their shared picks include three incumbents--Mr. Martin, Midge Sweet, and Carolyn Yancy.

The district's chief problems, those groups maintain, are fiscal waste and entrenched mediocrity.

Mr. Trotter last week pointed out that the district's 3,600 teachers are paid an average salary of $38,000, the highest in the state. Yet few are ever dismissed for incompetence, despite students' low test scores and high dropout rates, he said.

Ms. Brooks of the Atlanta Federation of Teachers at one point indicated that about 10 percent of the system's teachers should not be teaching. She later backed off the figure, however, and last week blamed the presence of bad teachers on inadequate training and the unwillingness of principals to carry through with the paperwork needed to dismiss them.

The district's administrators also have come under fire. A recent Journal and Constitution article, for example, stated that district policies and board members' attitudes have conspired to promote incompetent insiders and keep fresh blood away. The story noted that 12 of the district's top 15 administrators have spent nearly their entire careers in the district.

$18 Million Said Misspent

The board also has been charged with overpaying district staff members and protecting them from layoffs at a time when the district lacks money for supplies and for programs to help low-income children, who account for three-quarters of enrollment.

A chamber of commerce study alleged that the district has misspent more than $18 million over the past five years in the operation of school cafeterias, primarily by paying full-time wages and benefits to people who work part time.

A series of articles on the district in the Atlanta Business Chronicle reached similar conclusions. The reports also accused the district of squandering millions of dollars on unnecessary school construction.

Superintendent Butts and his executive assistant, Everett Abney, declined several recent requests for interviews.

In a letter released Oct. 19, however, Mr. Butts characterized the information circulated by local newspapers and advocacy groups as containing "numerous inaccuracies.'' The district last week was preparing to place a full-page advertisement in the Journal and Constitution to present its side.

'Deceiving Ourselves'

At the conclusion of last week's forum for at-large candidates, Freddie A. Wideman, the acting president of the Atlanta Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, expressed doubts about whether any of candidates knows what it takes "to turn the system around.''

To the dismay of several of the civic activists in attendance, few contenders expressed any enthusiasm for tenure reform or the privatization of costly district operations, instead voicing fears that such policies would put people out of work.

Nor were instructional issues significantly discussed. Most of the candidates focused on the need to make schools safer by installing more metal detectors or hiring more security guards.

"If we think we are going to get a better school system just by changing the board, we are deceiving ourselves,'' Mr. McDonald later conceded.

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