School scandals displayed a real lack of leadership

Published 7:03 am Tuesday, January 17, 2012

It has been over a decade since I left the Georgia General Assembly. It has been several years since I have even set foot in the Capitol in Atlanta. That changed this week when I attended “Publishers Day,” sponsored by the Georgia Press Association.

It is strangely odd sitting in the position of an advocate or lobbyist after so many years of listening to them. The lieutenant governor, Casey Cagle, and then the governor, Nathan Deal, were ushered into a conference room to make quick remarks.

It didn’t take long for some memories to come flooding back. For instance, within the first hour I probably heard the phrase, “we are here to do the people’s business,” a dozen times. If only the people thought that was true.

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I met with several old friends in the House and Senate. Some were old hands before I ever arrived. Others arrived after my departure. Many of the lobbyists were occupying their same positions along the corridors and railings, looking after the same interests they have been supporting for years.

I had signed up for a couple of workshops put on by the Press Association, including two concerning the investigation and reporting of the school-cheating scandals in the Atlanta Public Schools and Dougherty County Schools.

Like most of you, I have read cursory details from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Albany Herald. Being married to a teacher, I was dismayed at the systemic cheating going on. It was hard to believe the levels to which it was supported on one hand, and then overlooked on the other.

Following the two reporters from the AJC, I heard a speech by my old friend, Mike Bowers, the former Attorney General, and Robert Wilson. They were asked by the governor to do an independent investigation into the allegations.

I have found Mike Bowers to be a man of great integrity and political skills. He isn’t very patient with incompetence or untruths. In the case of these two school systems, there was plenty of both.

I became more and more dismayed as I listened how more than 2,800 interviews substantiated corruption and cheating on test scores. These administrators and in some cases, teachers, put themselves before the very children they had been entrusted to teach.

In some cases, more than 85 percent of the answers had been erased and changed. Some schools jumped hundreds of places in the statewide standings in the course of a year — an admirable achievement, but not very likely.

In the case of Atlanta, the problems came from the top down. The nationally-known superintendant insulated herself from any culpability. The attorney for the school system stated that her main job was to give the superintendant deniability. What about the children? What about the law?

In the case of Albany, the determination was that it wasn’t a failure of leadership at the top. Rather, the school board and administration failed to support the relatively new leadership team. Teachers being disciplined had too many friends in high places.

The recent case of an Albany principal being disciplined for falsifying documents to allow her own child to receive reduced-price meals defies common sense and belief. Her punishment: a 15-day suspension with pay. Sounds like a vacation to me.

In a time that even a longtime political junkie like me becomes jaded with public officials and discouraged by the antics of those running for our highest office, Thursday I felt rejuvenated in the role of government.

The state investigation was done completely and thoroughly without regard to where the facts would take them. It delivered that thing that the public most wants from its officials: the truth.

Bowers correctly stated that the investigation would never have gotten started without the investigative work of the Journal-Constitution. There usually has to be a groundswell of public support for this sort of cleaning house.

My question to Attorney General Bowers was that I understood how such corruption could occur in Atlanta because it was from the top down. What disturbed me was how could it happen in Albany?

“A lack of leadership,” he responded. The school board and other leaders in the community allowed it to happen. Their own reputations and connections were more important than the education of their children.

That perhaps is the greatest indictment of all. It is also our own greatest challenge. Southwest Georgia faces many hurdles. Those who lead us must provide honest answers to challenging questions.

We must look at our own results and determine if we are indeed holding our leaders accountable. City, county and educational government aren’t just about taxes. They must lead us to a better place, particularly when it is our children that are in need.

If we don’t ask the right questions, determine the right answers, and hold our leaders accountable, then we must face that the lack of leadership is ours and we only have ourselves to blame.

Dan Ponder can be reached at