By Imani Scott-Blackwell
Those of you who have already read Part 1 of this series are already aware that I do have strategic disagreements with Clarke County Schools Superintendent Dr. Demond Means. However, the objective for Part 2 is to clearly demonstrate that the root of our problems have little to do with Dr. Means. I argue that it is not he that we need to be holding solely accountable but instead the for-profit search firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates (HYA) that CCSD outsourced the superintendent search to. HYA has a history of controversial selections in Flint, Michigan, Nashville, Tennessee, and a number of other school districts across the nation. According to reporting by OurFuture.org published earlier this year,
“In an extensive investigation, Our Schools (a project by the Independent Media Institute) has found multiple cases in which private, for-profit companies paid by school districts to conduct searches for prospective new superintendents have recommended numerous candidates with:
Falsified academic or professional credentials,
Documented evidence of financial mismanagement or financial impropriety,
Incidents of unethical behavior and conflicts of interest,
Histories of combative work relationships with teachers, parents, school board members, or administrative staff, and
Resumes filled with short tenures that could indicate a desire to endlessly job-hop to higher-paid positions and leave previous employers in the lurch.”
These accusations likely sound familiar as we have suffered through chaos and controversy related to each and every case listed above. When we consider CCSD leadership through a critical lens of systemic analysis, it is clear that Clarke County School District is not immune from the corruption in public education plaguing school districts across the nation. Transparency International, the global coalition against corruption, argues that education is “critically prone to corruption” as it typically comprises 20-30% of a country’s budget. According to an article published on CommonDreams.org titled “How Billionaire Charter School Funders Corrupted the School Leadership Pipeline”, education reform efforts funded by wealthy philanthropists of the “Big 3” the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Walton Family Foundation, and the Eli & Edythe Broad have strategically funded education reforms that aim to redirect school districts and leadership to a focus on entrepreneurship and big business rather than teacher, student, and community-led solutions. Why is this important? Well here’s what we know….
Fish begin to rot from the head and Hazard, Young, and Attea & Associates has had no shortage of flops and so it is more than precedented to evaluate their impact in Athens-Clarke County. As Dr. Means is their impact, it is he who critics have zeroed in on.
Dr. Means is interested in advancing his career using the corrupt school leadership pipeline created by the Broad Foundation as is evident through his $15,000 expenditure to hire Robert Avossa to help him get into the Broad Academy. This is the same Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation that has pumped millions of dollars into advocating for charter schools and school governance models that emphasize a business management style rather than democratic engagement. Continue reading more detail about the harmful influence of the Broad Foundation here.
CCSD has followed the education reform playbook closely but this did not begin with Dr. Means. Under prior Superintendent Philip Lanoue, the district shelled out excessive amounts of money for tech initiatives to put a laptop/tablet in the hands of every student and contracts for services like Google Classroom and other softwares. Learn more about recent private contractor expenditures reported in Flagpole earlier this month.
When our district is caught up in controversy, the children are inherently de-prioritized by virtue of the fact that none of us have endless time and resources. When our time is spent debating back and forth about an individual, we put systemic issues on the back burner. All of the time we have spent in our respective camps mobilizing around a person we have failed to mobilize around policy change. It is important to be clear about the fight. Unless we believe that CCSD level policy is already optimized to achieve equity then we can all agree that we have gotten distracted from our alleged focus. Research shows that an average superintendent tenure is only around 6 years or less. We have CCSD policies that were adopted in the early 90s, some of which have not even been revised in over 20 years.
Now, I know it may seem like I have come to this conversation with nothing but criticism and bad news but there is an upside here. Our problems at the school district level did not start with Dr. Means and they will not end with him but we do have options. Collectively, we have the power to pry our school district out of the hands of those who want to sell out our kids’ academic futures to enrich themselves, for-profit companies, and private contractors. Our Board of Education can write policy prohibiting the use of any of the “Big Three” Superintendent search firms, Hazard, Young and Attea & Associates (the largest), McPherson & Jacobson, and Ray & Associates. This would allow investment in the creation of infrastructure for local control of the Superintendent search while also ensuring the funds remain in our local economy. Additionally, we can advocate for the Board of Education to update budget policy to allot a percentage of the district budget be allocated using participatory budgeting. Participatory budgeting allows a portion of the budget to be used to fund projects and initiatives proposed for and by teachers, students, and community stakeholders. Learn more about how participatory budgeting works in school context with this short 3 minute clip. This sneak peek into participatory budgeting implementation in schools in Phoenix, Arizona provides inspiring insight into the future of budgeting whether it be at the school, district, or local government level.
If you get nothing else out of this column series please get this: top-down hierarchical governance at the school district level puts our children, and thus our community-at-large, at risk. It should not be possible that a superintendent have so much power that only he or she has a chance at implementing impactful interventions across the district. It also should not be possible that a contentious Board of Education and Schools Superintendent relationship can derail district wide progress and initiatives once they have begun. When our power dynamics in governance are this lopsided we unnecessarily create the conditions where corruption, private interests, and interpersonal conflict can take dominate at the expense of the children in our community. That is a risk that no student in Clarke County Schools has ever been able to afford. Moreso, it is a risk that is unnecessary as we can institutionalize community control through participatory budgeting, policy change, and by prioritizing community collaboration that leverages the University of Georgia, local non-profits, and public-private partnerships that keep our tax dollars circulating within the local economy rather than outsourcing contracts and sending our dollars and decision-making power to out-of-state firms.
Imani Scott-Blackwell was a 2018 CCSD Board of Education candidate for District 5. She is a community organizer, activist, and owner and strategy consultant at Going Rogue, a local consulting practice for non-profits and small-businesses.