When the Georgia state school board gathers this week for its first meeting of 1997, the new faces around the table will at least know what their first goal should be.
Democratic Gov. Zell Miller launched a purge of the board in October, in hopes that new members could get along with Linda C. Schrenko, the state schools superintendent. Mr. Miller asked all of his appointees to the board to resign--a last-ditch effort to end months of bickering between Ms. Schrenko, a Republican, and the board, which was controlled by Democrats.
Since its last meeting, Mr. Miller has named nine new members to the 11-member board, including Republican Johnny Isakson, a former state senator who ran against Mr. Miller in the 1990 gubernatorial race.
Mr. Isakson “has proved over the years that he can work with people from all walks of life and bring them together, regardless of their party affiliation, their race, their gender, or their philosophy,” Gov. Miller said in announcing his appointments. “At this point in time, that skill is badly needed on the board.”
The board won’t start from scratch, however. Two members refused to step down, including Chairman J.T. Williams, who had probably the most contentious relationship with Ms. Schrenko since she was elected in 1994. Mr. Miller’s new appointees agreed to elect Mr. Isakson the panel’s new chairman.
Most education groups, and the state’s two teachers’ associations, applauded the governor’s choices.
Gary Ashley, the executive director of the Georgia School Boards Association, called Mr. Isakson “a man of integrity and high ethical standards.”
And Susan Cable, an ally of the superintendent who serves on a statewide Goals 2000 committee, said: “Philosophically, I think Schrenko finally has some people that are aligned with her.”
But Bill Barr, the executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association, said he didn’t think asking the entire board to resign was an “orderly way” to resolve the conflicts.
While the state constitution calls for seven-year terms, the new board members have agreed to serve only two years, leaving “an opportunity for a fresh start” in 1998, Mr. Miller said.
But Ms. Cable, a school board member in Bibb County, said two years may not be enough time for the new members to get up to speed.
Meanwhile, the governor has also asked the board to address the “structural flaws in the current legal relationship between the board and the department.”
Some of the discord between the board and Ms. Schrenko can be blamed on a 1996 state law that gave the superintendent more authority over day-to-day operations of Georgia’s education department--power traditionally held by the board.
The fact that the superintendent’s seat was won by a Republican for the first time since Reconstruction also contributed to the strife.
“All of a sudden there were such differences of philosophy,” said Kay Pippin, the lobbyist for the Georgia Association of Educators, the state’s largest teachers’ association.
Changes in Illinois
Georgia is not the only state that opens the year with wholesale changes on the board that governs school policy. In Illinois, a new state law reduced the number of board members from 17 to nine.
The law also grants the governor authority to appoint the board chairman from among the nine members. Previously, the board members elected their own chairman.
Gov. Jim Edgar announced his new appointments, including four of the sitting members of the board, last month.
According to Mindy Sick, the education aide to the Republican governor, legislators felt the old structure was “just too big to be able to function efficiently and effectively.”
Whether the changes in Illinois and Georgia will mean smoother operations or better decisions remains to be seen.
Simply replacing the board in Georgia may bring peace for now, some observers said. But many people would like to see a complete change in the way members are chosen.
Both teachers’ associations would prefer to have an elected state board--especially since a new law requires all local school boards to be elected and district superintendents to be appointed by those boards.
It’s possible, observers said, that the new members of the Georgia board will make that recommendation at the end of their two years.
“We have long believed that the public should be involved in public education and vote on the state board,” Ms. Pippin said.
But Mr. Ashley of the Georgia school boards’ association said an election would be costly and would invite “special-interest contributors.”
His group favors a proposal--now used in Washington state--that would have caucuses of local school board members in each of the 11 Georgia congressional districts nominate candidates for the state board. The state legislative delegation from each district would choose a board member from the nominees. The governor would also appoint five at-large members, raising the number of seats to 16.
During Georgia’s 1996 legislative session, a bill was introduced and defeated that would have called for a statewide referendum on whether the board members should be elected by the voters.
John Godbee, a retired state lawmaker who served as the chairman of the House education committee, blames conservative Republicans and supporters of Ms. Schrenko, such as the Christian Coalition of Georgia, for the bill’s defeat.
In eight states, elected board members appoint a chief state school officer, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education. In 32 states, governors appoint state board members, but those states differ on how the chiefs are selected. The remaining states have some other arrangement, such as the one in Washington state.