The failures of the school board

Steve Brown's picture

With a sense of literary tragedy, the exit of John DeCotis, Ph.D., coincided with a bitter cold front, snow and the closing of our schools, an image ripe with symbolism.

I cannot consider John DeCotis a tragic hero as most in that genre fall from their own hubris. There is not an ounce of pride or presumption in DeCotis’ body. The man is a dedicated public servant.

The DeCotis as superintendent era, 1999 to 2010, carries the heavy burden of a school system brimming with promise and achievement, but sinking under the weight of unfortunate choices.

Assuming his position within the Fayette County Board of Education (FCBOE) chain of command, DeCotis consistently moved on orders given to him by a rag-tag bunch of over-confident Board of Education members. DeCotis, in my opinion, had to fall on his sword owing to the exaggerated pride of his elected superiors.

The names of the school board members who served from 2000 to present will live in infamy with the bitter taste of their poor decisions lingering for years to come, affecting every family with school-age children in our county, punishing every taxpayer.

Structuring a major bond financing package with only a 10-year term in 2000 was the first set of shackles placed upon the superintendent. The short-term financing was a noose around the school system’s neck.

The 2004 bond referendum was a complete fraud. At a time when the elementary school population was actually in decline, the FCBOE told us we had an overcrowding problem. To cover things up, the FCBOE closed East Fayette Elementary School, a school that received expensive renovations from our 2000 bond funds, in order to make their actions appear justified.

The FCBOE worked under the guise of two supposed independent committees: “External Construction Advisory Committee,” which was promoted as an outside advisory group, and the “Internal Construction Committee” composed of senior FCBOE staffers. Both committees said that new elementary schools were badly needed and both submitted IDENTICAL documents to the FCBOE.

The indistinguishable documents in support of building the two new schools from the committees, dated August 2007, twice stated the need for “additional classroom space” when all the data clearly pointed to a decline in the elementary population.

The matching committee documents also supported the building of the schools because of the cost of operation and safety issues related to using portable classrooms, when the truth is we have excess capacity inside the elementary school network, so trailers were not needed. DeCotis carries some of the responsibility for both committees and the data they used.

Instead of not building the unnecessary schools, the FCBOE built two facilities, but decided to build them smaller, causing capacity problems in the future. One of those schools, Rivers Elementary, adjoining the bogus West Fayetteville Bypass, has a mere 40 special education students inside.

DeCotis, covering for what was truly a horrendous decision-making process, explained to a public forum that the school system had the facilities needed for the year 2030. Somehow, he thought telling the current population they had paid for the expanded school infrastructure for families living in Fayette County in the year 2030 was a good idea.

The FCBOE also went on a land-buying binge for purposes unrelated to the bond requirements. Those blunders caused us to purchase large tracts of land at inflated “bubble” prices, later admitting the mistake, putting it for sale in an enormously depressed market.

The track record for financing and procuring computers and other forms or technology for schools from 2000 to present has been abysmal.

While other school districts stored reserve funds to keep things running in good order, the FCBOE squandered everything, leaving accounts penniless, crimping cash flow, borrowing occasionally to meet expenses.

The most recent ESPLOST was sold as a desperate life raft for a sinking ship. FCBOE Members Terri Smith and Janet Smola, who before their election said the system was in great shape, were now bailing water, saying the ESPLOST was needed to prevent staff cuts and other serious damage. Shortly after the passage of the new tax, the FCBOE cut numerous teaching and paraprofessional positions.

Former FCBOE Chairman Mickey Littlefield used to say the success of our school system was largely due to the fact we have so many well-educated parents who demand that their children do well. Likewise, our high achieving students create an attractive employment environment for hiring serious teachers.

When you consider the educational and financial might of our county, it boggles the mind to think our school system is in such dire straits.

Like I said previously, the buck stops with the elected FCBOE members; however, it is the task of the upper-level administration to make recommendations encouraging the elected officials to do the right thing.

Unfortunately, DeCotis’ mild-mannered, get-along style allowed him to pursue the ill-conceived policies of the FCBOE without objection. The only check on the power of a school board who routinely locks parents out of the decision-making process is the superintendent.

Some contend the consistent pay raises for DeCotis influenced his ability to go along with poor policy and a lack of financial discipline.

DeCotis’ cutting of teachers while allowing the district administration to remain top-heavy has often been criticized too. To my knowledge, there have been no significant recommendations from DeCotis to reconfigure the district administration.

I have to agree with Littlefield’s conclusion on the school system having a solid foundation with its student body. I am also left wondering how long we can hold on to some of the stellar teachers when you look at how neighboring school districts, like Coweta, are coming along.

A lack of boldness with the superintendent has allowed some over-confident elected board members to run our ship aground. Hopefully, we can make the necessary corrections the next time around.

[Steve Brown is the former mayor of Peachtree City. He can be reached at stevebrownptc@ureach.com.]