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Editorial: Increasing DeKalb School Board pay is important part of reforming school system

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Editorial: Increasing DeKalb School Board pay is important part of reforming school system

DeKalb County School District Bus. Photo by Dean Hesse.

We understand why you’re skeptical about the DeKalb County School Board requesting a 60% pay raise from our legislative delegation.

Of late, the school board’s actions aren’t the kind that merit a perceived reward. Changing superintendents more often than changing socks, numerous teacher vacancies, and dysfunctional board meetings (among many problems) are not things that scream, “Pay them more” to the average taxpayer. But we strongly believe that a pay raise is an important part of improving the way our board functions because it will attract stronger candidates who are willing to serve on the board.

The problem with DeKalb Schools has been evident for years. It’s a $2 billion institution that’s run like a small town school district, attracting board members who are either independently wealthy, have a career that offers schedule flexibility, or are retired and have no children in the schools anymore. Over time, it leads to a board that isn’t run by serious people who are committed to doing the work it takes to manage a large, complex organization like DeKalb County Schools.

Decaturish has proposed a raise in the past as one of three proposals that we think will bring order and stability to the school district. School board members currently make $18,000 a year. This is absurd and limits the pool of people who would be interested in doing this job. School board members work long hours and often meet multiple times a month, at the expense of their day jobs. For anyone working a full-time job, being a school board member means taking a financial hit. There aren’t many of us willing to make that kind of sacrifice, particularly to deal with a district as notoriously dysfunctional as DeKalb’s.

School board members should be making at least as much as county commissioners, about $65,000 a year. The current proposed raise falls short of that, increasing pay to $30,000. But it’s a step in the right direction and something the Legislature should pass in the current session, ahead of this year’s school board elections.

Our other two proposals for reforming the board are:

— Term limits. School board members should be able to serve no more than two consecutive terms.

Adding super districts. Like the DeKalb County Commission, the current school board needs two super districts. Like DeKalb County’s super districts, the school board’s super districts should divide the county in half vertically, north to south. That will hopefully bridge the north-versus-south divides that contribute to the current board’s disagreements. We need board members who will look at the needs of all students in this county. That’s how we can avoid situations like the Druid Hills High debacle.

It’s unlikely the legislative delegation will consider term limits and super districts this year. This is an election year and our legislators are about to run for reelection with radically altered maps. We understand that making structural changes to the school board might be a heavy lift that merits a longer, more thoughtful discussion. But pay raises are an easy lift and should be implemented this year.

The responsibility for reforming our school board is not the legislative delegation’s alone. Our community, specifically our civic and business leadership, needs to abandon their hands-off approach to the district and recruit strong, qualified candidates to serve on the board.

Three board members are potentially up for reelection this year: former board chair Vickie Turner, Board member Dr. Joyce Morley, and board member Anna Hill, who says she doesn’t intend to run again. All three were involved in the controversial decision to abruptly fire Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris, which threw an already dysfunctional school district into chaos.

We need board members who are engaged with the complexities of our district and who are serious about good governance, particularly when it comes to attracting and retaining qualified superintendent candidates. We need board members who are willing to work collaboratively with their colleagues instead of causing discord so they can see their names in the news. Most of all, we need board members who see the big picture, and understand that our county is only as strong as its school system. Today, the school district remains mired in mediocrity. The only way that changes is when the business community, including the chamber of commerce and elected officials of all local governments served by the school district, recruits strong, capable individuals to serve on this school board. Increasing the salary of the board members can only help with that task.

We encourage our delegation to approve this raise and to begin contemplating broader structural reforms that will give residents of DeKalb County a school system they can be proud of.

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