Tuesday, May 2, 2023
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
- “Georgia DNR gives coastal ecosystem a ‘B’ grade, with bald eagle losses but sea turtle gains” (GPB, April 26, 2023) “Coastal Georgia’s ecosystem received a relatively clean bill of health for 2022, as the state’s Department of Natural Resources gave it a “B” grade in the agency’s annual Ecosystem Report Card.”
- “Tybee Island preps for unpermitted ‘Peach Fest,’ explores legal options for limiting future access” (GPB, April 28, 2023) “[Tybee Island Mayor Shirley] Sessions said that Tybee Island city attorneys are ‘looking into what we can do to have better control’ over how many people can access the island for future events — a move she acknowledged would be legally challenging. ‘Because we receive beach renourishment funding, thankfully, from our federal government, the beach is a public beach,’ Sessions said. ‘We’ve been told that we can’t stop people from coming here.’”
- “Voting rights groups target line relief ban in Georgia election law changes” (Capitol Beat, April 24, 2023) “Voting rights groups are going to federal court to block part of a law the General Assembly passed two years ago prohibiting volunteers from providing food and water to voters waiting in long lines at the polls.”
- “Paris Hilton pushes bipartisan bill to reform ‘troubled teen’ industry” (The Hill, April 27, 2023) Paris Hilton appeared on Capitol Hill Thursday with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to advocate for a newly introduced bill to regulate “troubled teen” facilities, meant for young people struggling with behavioral issues and substance abuse. Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), as well as Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Buddy Carter (R-Ga.) joined Hilton at the Capitol to discuss the Stop Institutional Child Abuse Act, sponsored by Carter, Cornyn, Khanna and Merkley.
- “More Green Jobs Are Coming to Georgia. Will Black Residents Benefit?” (Capital B, April 11, 2023) “Many clean energy jobs tend to pay more than the state median wage, which is critical for Black folks living in and around the nation’s most unequal major city. Industry experts say Georgia’s Black population is at risk of missing out on these emerging clean energy workforce opportunities unless something changes dramatically.”
Challenging FDA authority isn’t new – agency history shows what’s at stake when drug regulation is in limbo
Due in part to FDA involvement, public health interventions have led to a 62% increase in life expectancy in the 20th century. These include vaccines and medications for childhood illnesses and infectious diseases such as HIV, increased regulation of tobacco, and over-the-counter Narcan to combat the opioid crisis, among others.
Meals on Wheels becomes climate-relief model
Services which touch vulnerable people each day can hasten response to emergencies because the knowledge is already in place.
Push to grow Georgia music industry fizzles under Gold Dome
The House Creative Arts & Entertainment Committee approved the measure to create a statewide music office. But it failed to reach the House floor for a vote, while the tax incentives bill didn’t even get a committee vote.
As federal emergency declaration expires, picture of pandemic grows fuzzier
Some shared data requirements will end and the federal government will lose access to key metrics as a skeptical Congress seems unlikely to grant agencies additional powers.
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