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By Eric Stirgus July 13, 2011

Georgia pol says Atlanta school board had no oversight power

An alarming state report released last week blamed teachers, administrators and former Superintendent Beverly Hall for a widespread test-tampering scandal in the Atlanta Public Schools system.

The report attracted national headlines and punchlines from some prominent comedians.

To our surprise, Ralph Long, a state representative from southwest Atlanta, added another group to the culpability list: the Georgia General Assembly, the body Long currently serves.

"The General Assembly took away the Atlanta Board of Education’s oversight of the superintendent," Long, a Democrat, said at a news conference.

Long was referring to Senate Bill 204, which passed in 2003, six years before he joined the General Assembly. The bill gave the superintendent the power to hire the school district’s general counsel and chief financial officer. It also imposed ethics guidelines for school administrators and the board. The bill’s chief sponsor: then-Sen. Kasim Reed, who is now Atlanta’s mayor.

Long has been critical of Reed’s role in the ongoing school district crisis. Long has accused the mayor, who by law has no oversight of Atlanta schools, of solely serving the interests of the city’s business community and the influential Metro Atlanta Chamber. Long was one of the few public officials to side with Reed’s opponent, Mary Norwood, in the 2009 Atlanta mayoral runoff election, which Reed won by less than 1 percentage point.

Reed defended the bill Monday in an interview with Channel 2 Action News. The mayor said it was an effort to streamline operations at a time some community leaders complained the district couldn’t keep a superintendent because of board micromanagement. Reed also took a verbal jab at Long.

"He’s looking for 15 minutes of fame out of the awful crisis that’s impacting our children," Reed said.

Long defended his point to PolitiFact Georgia, saying the legislation left the board essentially toothless. Stacking the deck, were the words Long used to describe the overwhelming influence that Hall was given over APS.

Long said he’s considering a bill that would revive the board’s authority to hire a general counsel and CFO.

"The board didn’t have any power," said Long.

We wondered if Long’s comments about the bill added up.

The state report outlines in exhaustive detail a "culture of fear" inside APS for teachers and administrators to produce higher student scores on statewide tests. Hall was named national superintendent of the year by one influential education group for Atlanta’s markedly improved test scores and higher graduation rates. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution questioned irregularities in some scores as far back as 2001, and ramped up its investigative reporting into the matter over the past two years. The state report concluded 178 educators, including three dozen principals, participated in systematic cheating on state curriculum tests. Nearly half of them confessed to wrongdoing.

Senate Bill 204 supporters said the legislation was necessary to insulate the superintendent from micromanaging by the board. Atlanta board member Emmett Johnson, who is still on the nine-member board, made that argument to the AJC in 2003, noting that the city school district had five superintendents in 10 years. The board had overseen the chief financial officer and general counsel positions since the 1970s, as part of the so-called "Atlanta compromise" that brought the city its first black superintendent. Critics worried at the time that board ceded too much of its authority.

The bill still gave the board power to fire the superintendent. It also gave the board and the superintendent the dual authority to adopt districtwide academic standards. Additionally, they had the power to track progress toward "student learning goals and the academic content and performance standards."

Doesn’t this prove the school board had oversight power? No way, said Long.

Long maintained that some board members felt they couldn’t stand up to Hall, who was being supported by Atlanta’s business community, which typically bankrolled winning school board candidates through a political action committee called EduPAC.

"That’s a lot of intimidation, and people who don’t recognize that are naive," said Long, who called on Hall to resign in August.

Reed said the bill strengthened Hall’s power, but argued the board’s oversight "remained exactly what it was." He said many districts considered it a "best practice" to have the general counsel and CFO report to the superintendent.

We talked about this with Warren Fortson, who served as the general counsel to APS for 22 years, until he retired in the early 1990s. Fortson said he argued against SB 204 because "it builds a wall between the board and the administration." Still, he said, the APS board had oversight. Fortson said Long’s claim was too broad.

"They have oversight of the superintendent," Fortson said of the APS board. "A board has the authority to call in the superintendent for almost anything."

SB 204 gave more authority to the superintendent. However, it still gave the board the oversight authority over the superintendent. The board also had consent power over hiring and firing a CFO (Sec. 4-101) or general counsel (Sec. 2-111).

Long said state lawmakers "took away" the Atlanta school board’s oversight of the school superintendent. It did not. But it did somewhat diminish the board’s power.

Long’s statement contains an element of truth, but it ignores critical facts that we believe would give people a different impression.

We rate his claim Barely True.

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Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.

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Georgia pol says Atlanta school board had no oversight power

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