In the world of politics and government service, nothing speaks louder these days than money.
Complaints don’t carry as much weight; neither does constructive criticism. The only way to get an elected or appointed official’s full and undivided attention is by closing the checkbook.
And that’s what Dougherty County voters should do Tuesday when they go to the polls to decide whether to continue a 1 percent special-purpose local-option sales tax for education.
The leadership from the Dougherty County School Board and the superintendent’s office has been lacking for some time now, and shows no signs of immediate improvement. Take the manner in which the superintendent and School Board have dealt with the latest controversy — accusations that a longtime employee of the school system, Morningside Elementary Principal Gloria Baker, and her husband lied on paperwork so that their daughter would be entitled to free lunches at school. The program for free and reduced-cost lunches was established to help families who have lower incomes, a segment that comprises an unfortunately large percentage of Dougherty County families. With Baker receiving a salary in excess of $90,000 from the school system, it’s difficult to see how the household could qualify for free lunches.
If this happened as authorities charge, there’s a good chance this is not an isolated incident. Taxpayers who ultimately fund this and other programs should be able to rely on the officials they put on the School Board — and the officials appointed by those board members — to ensure those programs are properly administered and conducted by the rules.
With Tuesday’s vote hanging out there in the political wind Friday, the majority of the School Board and Superintendent Joshua Murfree initially took a duck-and-run mentality. The Albany Herald obtained emails Friday in which board member Darrel Ealum, who clearly saw action was needed, expressed concerns about the adverse impact the free-lunch scandal could have on the vote. He asked for a called meeting to take up the issue so the board could be proactive rather than reactive.
But the inertia was there as usual. Murfree’s response was he didn’t see a need for one, and be careful about those emails — they’re public record.
Board member David Maschke pointed out that the chairman, James Bush, or a four-member majority could call for a special meeting. Later in the day Friday, Murfree finally relented and called for a special board meeting on Wednesday. Voters will go to the polls Tuesday to decide whether to entrust more tax money to an organization with too many so-called leaders who, rather than stand up and address a controversy head on as Ealum wanted, prefer to skitter away from it.
This same mentality prevailed when the School Board trashed its own selection process for superintendent and the majority of members thumbed their noses at the Georgia Sunshine Laws. And when you have a board member like Milton Griffin who is willing to pay an extra $30,000 on a contract to handle Sales Tax for Educational Progress (STEP) bonds just because a firm employs someone who once attended a Dougherty County public school, you seriously have to question the overall quality of the leadership that’s overseeing the school district.
The projects on the list for the sales tax vote Tuesday are not the issue. The $100 million expected to be generated over the five-year life of the 1 percent sales tax would improve facilities, technology, equipment and vehicles. And voting down the referendum would set those schedules back.
That’s an unfortunate consequence, but in our view a necessary one. The voters have an opportunity to send the School Board a loud and clear message, one that business as usual is no longer acceptable. The culture that has taken hold and has led to cheating on standardized tests and looking out for pals instead of the students has to end, and school system leadership must refocus on what should be its only job — educating young minds and preparing them for life in a rapidly-changing world.
Before that will happen, though, Dougherty County voters have to demand that all of those who are in charge of the system perform better. Voting “no” on Tuesday is the loudest voice the average citizen has for demanding improvements in the school system, starting at the top.