Tuesday, May 2, 2023

‘Exceptional interest’

Education is the focus of this week’s edition of Soundings, and we start with the Savannah-Chatham County school board’s search for a new superintendent:

“We’ve had exceptional interest in this position.”

That’s the word from Kevin Castner, a representative of BWP & Associates, the Illinois-based firm hired by the school board at a cost of $55,920 to aid its nationwide search for a successor to Dr. M. Ann Levett, who is stepping down in June 30.

The field of candidates, which included 12 current or former superintendents, was so strong that the firm had had trouble narrowing down a list of candidates to refer to the school board for interviews, Castner told members of the school board in a public briefing yesterday.

How many candidates will be interviewed by the board wasn’t disclosed during the briefing.

In addition to helping the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System hire a new superintendent,  SBWP & Associates is currently assisting seven other school systems and districts across the U.S. seeking new superintendents, according to the company’s website.

In summarizing the results of the firm’s discussions with board members and listening sessions with students, parents, and other interested residents across Chatham County, Percy Mack, another representative of the search firm, told board members that the new superintendent must be, among other things, a “student-focused leader who is honest, dedicated, authentic and thick-skinned.”

“Thick-skinned,” indeed.

Levett’s successor will take over a system beset by low reading rates and test scores, and declining enrollment.

An update prepared by the school system’s finance division in preparation for the FY2024 budget says the school system lost 153 students during the two previous fiscal years, from 36,023 to 35,970.

The report blamed the pandemic for some of the drop in enrollment. Others, it said, were due to “the number of students who choose an alternative to public education (private schools, charter schools, home schools, virtual schools, etc.)”

“Further declines are expected in coming years,” it said.

And then there’s the repeated boast by Levett and other school district officials that the school system’s graduation rate ranks above the state average of 84%.

While true, writes Zoe Nicholson of the Savannah Morning News, “the district’s high school literacy rates and test scores — key factors in determining whether a student is “ready” for college, military service, or employment after high school — fall far below state averages.”

From left, Technical College System of Georgia Commissioner Greg Dozier, Department of Early Care and Learning Director Amy Jacobs, University System of Georgia Chancellor Sonny Perdue and State School Superintendent Richard Woods, Jan. 6, 2023. Credit: Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Political war, education battlefield

Perhaps not since the struggles over school segregation in the late 1950s and 1960s and bussing in the 1970s has education at all levels been so politically embattled.

Case in point: Georgia lawmakers cut $66 million from the FY2024 budget for 26 colleges of the state’s university system on the last day of its legislative session.

In response, Chancellor Sonny Perdue threatened a tuition hike, a measure the former Republican governor no doubt knows would be very unpopular with Georgians of all political persuasions.

The former Republican governor had already acknowledged earlier this year that 20 of the state’s public institutions would receive less money in the budget because the state’s funding formula is based in part on enrollment numbers. The $66 million cut would make the situation worse.

Signaling his own willingness to wage political war on an education battlefield — and possibly his own political ambitions — Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, the president of the Georgia Senate, fired back.

In a letter to Perdue, Jones requested a breakdown of what the university system spends on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. University officials say they’ll comply.

The possible tuition increase could be taken up by the Board of Regents as early as this month. Gov. Brian Kemp has until next week to sign or veto the legislation that includes the budget cut, or to let it become law without his signature.

Watch what governor does on the $66 million. Watch, too, how he responds to Jones and his audit of diversity initiatives in Georgia’s universities, as well as proposed changes to the state rules for teacher preparation that eliminate words associated with so-called wokeness, like diversity, equity, and inclusiveness.

Kemp may use these disputes to burnish his conservative credentials as he positions himself for political office when his second and last term as governor ends in 2026. Last year, you may recall, he signed legislation aimed at keeping critical race theory and other “woke politics out of the classroom and off our ballfields.”

Hill Hall at Savannah State University

Turmoil roils revered university

Savannah State University seems ensnared in a descending spiral: decreasing enrollment followed by cuts in state aid, which is partly tied to enrollment. Followed by cutting programs, faculty and staff, which further discourages enrollment. And so on.

On Friday, the first public historically black college or university in the state of Georgia and the first institution of higher learning in the city of Savannah announced it was laying off 23 non-tenured faculty members employees due to budget cuts tied to declining student enrollment and state-allocated funding.

The lay-offs follow an earlier decision to end the contracts of nine faculty members and cut four programs: English, History, Environmental Science and Africana Studies. Enrollment at the university is down 5.5% from last spring.

Adding to the tumult, a day before the layoffs, SSU’s president, Kimberly Ballard-Washington, announced her resignation, effective June 30. She cited “personal reasons” that prevented her from meeting her goals. She will be replaced by Cynthia Robinson Alexander, who holds a doctorate in law and currently serves as the university system’s associate vice chancellor for finance.

If that weren’t enough upheaval, more than half of the faculty in the university’s College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences last month backed a no-confidence motion in the college’s dean, one of Ballard-Washington’s hires, accusing him of mismanagement and “narcissism.”

How dire is financial situation for the alma mater of such notables as civil rights leader W.W. Law, football Hall of Fame member and broadcaster Shannon Sharpe, former Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson, and current Mayor Van Johnson.

Ballard-Washington says the university may have to close some buildings temporarily to save money on utilities.

The Army Corps of Engineers has blocked off man-made cuts through Georgia's coastal salt marsh, restoring the natural flow of water.
The Army Corps of Engineers has blocked off man-made cuts through Georgia’s coastal salt marsh, restoring the natural flow of water. Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Coastal Resources Division


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Craig Nelson

Craig Nelson is a former international correspondent for The Associated Press, the Sydney (Australia) Morning-Herald, Cox Newspapers and The Wall Street Journal. He also served as foreign editor for The...