LAST WEEK was a big news week in Savannah. Between a shooting at a funeral service, the official first day of the breakup of the police merger, and various controversies involving parking and St. Patrick’s Day — to name a few — you’d be forgiven for missing what might arguably have been the biggest story of all.
In a detailed Facebook post, current Savannah-Chatham County School Board President Jolene Byrne announced she will not seek a second term.
In some quarters the news was greeted with the sound of champagne corks popping. In other quarters it was received as devastating news for local public education.
Byrne’s announcement leaves, as of this writing, two declared candidates: Current Board member Larry Lower, and David Lerch, who has sought the office before. There are rumors of others to come.
While Byrne’s announcement wasn’t a complete surprise given the many controversies during her tenure, it does say a lot of things about the state of our community and our education system — few of them positive.
Byrne was elected on a reform platform, as a real-life mother with a child enrolled in our actual school system (a surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, rare thing in Chatham County school governance).
Most of the subsequent years saw Byrne defending herself from attacks, some blatantly sexist, from then-School Superintendent Thomas Lockamy; attacks from current and former Board members (including Lower’s daughter, former Board member Lori Brady); a constant onslaught of negative reporting, often of a personal nature, from the local daily paper; and most recently, a power struggle with new Superintendent Dr. Ann Levette.
Byrne writes in her post:
“While my time in office has been made challenging by a former Superintendent who frequently admitted he found it difficult to work with a ‘woman young enough to be his daughter,’ by a local newspaper so determined to write salacious gossip that facts became irrelevant, and by certain Board members more interested in Facebook posts than in the fact that hundreds of fourth graders in our district cannot read, I have been able to accomplish at least some of what we set out to do.”
Byrne specifically cites a 50 percent decrease in the number of students referred to juvenile court; an increase in the safety of the bus fleet (an audit done prior to her election, essentially hidden from the public by Lockamy and the Board, showed that three out of four buses weren’t roadworthy); and pushing through a long-overdue increase in pay for teachers and support staff.
Related Throwing safety under the bus
In a way, Byrne leaves office the same way she came in. She is no stranger to strongly opinionated Facebook posts, and her recent announcement has been criticized as self-serving, even self-pitying.
But considering she spent the last few years being regularly attacked by not only the area’s daily paper of record but also by the county’s largest single bureaucracy, I’m willing to grant her a little leeway.
Ironically, the obvious bias of the daily paper was showing signs of thawing with the recent departure of their longtime education reporter, who had gained a reputation as being strongly sympathetic to the administrative bureaucracy at 208 Bull Street, to put it charitably.
But what probably sealed the decision was the unsustainably tense nature of the relationship between Byrne and Levette — a standoff which can’t be solved by a mere change of staff at a newspaper.
“The sad reality is that ever since the Superintendent’s search resulted in a split vote, Board relationships have deteriorated. The Superintendent continues to freeze out Board members who did not vote to hire her, refusing to answer basic questions about policy implementation and budget expenditures, while the members who supported her bid for Superintendent have become bitterly hostile and aggressive. The antagonism has risen to the point that it has become nearly impossible to further our mission to serve students and the community.”
Of course that is just one side of the story; no doubt the reality is a bit more complex.
However, in an intriguing and possibly coincidental bit of timing, at the next Board meeting — the first since Byrne’s announcement — the Board is set to take up a bylaw change giving the Superintendent, not the School Board President, the power to craft the Board agenda.
If approved, the language would change from:
“The Board President is responsible for the development of the agenda in consultation with the Superintendent.”
“The Superintendent shall be responsible for the development of the agenda in collaboration with the Board President.”
In and of itself? Probably not a big deal.
But in context of the ongoing power struggle between the elected Board President and the appointed administration, it speaks volumes.
In my opinion, the move is directed toward such a time that a different — and more pliable?— Board President is in office.
Here’s the crux: The system here is odd.
We elect our School Board and Board Presidents in May, but they don’t take the oath of office until the following January.
Byrne did us a favor with the timing of her announcement: It comes a month before the final filing deadline to declare a run for the office of Board President.
It’s no small thing. You could make the case that the School Board President might be more important than even the Mayor.
Public education is not only crucial because of its indelible impact on future generations, but in the enormous amount of money the system raises and spends in the form of property taxes and sales taxes.
Regardless of your stance on Byrne’s record as School Board President, it is a hugely important position which deserves as much public involvement as possible.
You may have already heard the news that Jessica Leigh Lebos will be moving on from her role as Community Editor at Connect Savannah to take a position with the emerging entrepreneurial stars at Smoke Cartel.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with many fine writers during my time here. None have surpassed Jessica’s dedication to her craft and to her community.
Jessica explains it much better in her farewell column this issue. But when we first cooked up the wild idea that she would come work for us, the concept for her (Civil) Society Column also took shape.
The column was a reflection of Jessica herself: Vibrant, insightful, funny, wise, passionate and compassionate at the same time, and yes, maybe even a bit controversial on occasion!
In her six years-plus here, she not only had an indelible impact on the history and legacy of Connect Savannah itself, but — much more importantly — she had a positive, energizing, and hugely beneficial impact on our entire community.
We will miss her, we will miss her writing, and we wish her nothing but the best.