DAVID LERCH has been a Savannah-Chatham School Board member already, representing District 4 from 2001-2005.
Over five decades as an educator and consultant, one of his specialties is in desegregation. He now vies for the spot of School Board President just as desegregation is again a major local issue.
“I’ve been working in desegregation since 1970. I’ve testified in court cases. I’ve seen the hatred that goes on. You’ve got groups that are very divided,” he says.
Lerch is currently doing consulting work for the East Baton Rouge Parish schools in Louisiana, which he says has the oldest desegregation program in the country.
Indeed, Lerch says one reason local schools face such a serious budgetary problem – more on that in a minute – is because “people are scared of desegregation.”
“There is $100 million in federal grants currently available to help desegregation. But this school district won’t apply for any of it,” Lerch says incredulously.
“When I got on the Board in 2001, I asked why we didn’t have any of that money. Superintendent Lockamy told me the Board wouldn’t apply for it.”
Lerch says the district did apply, and receive, one such grant at his urging, but when he left the Board they didn’t apply for any more of that type of grant.
According to Lerch, there’s another $3 million, five-year grant available to Savannah-Chatham schools if they’d simply remove current entrance criteria from local Choice Program schools.
“Board members are afraid of money tied to choice schools for desegregation. Of course, once you get below the Mason-Dixon line, people tend to be suspicious of any federal involvement,” Lerch laughs.
With regards to current Choice Programs, Lerch says flatly that “we’ve set up an elitist system.”
“Savannah Arts Academy and STEM are really the only two choice schools that are working. I would turn the rest of the choice schools into magnets with no criteria for entry – just interest,” he says.
Why not also reorganize those schools?
“They’re simply too popular with parents to change,” Lerch says pragmatically. “Whoever suggested that wouldn’t get anywhere with it. They’d be voted off.”
“I’d work with the Board to determine which current choice programs are working — which are popular with significant academic improvement for the entire school. Most could probably be changed to no selection criteria, but with the provision that students behave, maintain specific grade point average and follow school rules,” he says.
In any case, the negative numbers facing whoever is the new School Board President for the next four years are jaw-dropping.
“This district is facing a $14 million shortfall just next year alone, to fund what the state says they have to fund. They’ve been warned about this over and over, but they just look like deers in the headlights whenever they hear it,” Lerch says.
In the wake of the Parkland shooting, even more budget stresses are on the way.
“A police representative told the Board they will be required by the state to retrofit schools to the tune of at least $10.5 million next year. That’s on top of the $14 million they’ll already be in the hole,” Lerch says.
Lerch has watched the recent squabbling on the board – much of it traced back to disputes between former Superintendent Thomas Lockamy and outgoing Board President Jolene Byrne – with interest.
“Jolene is taking a lot of hits, but many Board members share blame in what’s been going on,” he says.
“The biggest problem overall, though, is there is too much interference with the Superintendent by the Board.”
However, in a jab at opponent Joe Buck — a former Board President — Lerch also says that, “Buck would let Lockamy dictate the Board agenda each meeting. Lockamy was used to telling the Board, here’s what I want to do, and then Byrne got elected and said, let’s negotiate it,” he says.
One of Lerch’s resume points — establishing the Coastal Empire Montessori charter — had mixed results, as the school experienced serious management issues.
“The important part I learned was about competition for money,” Lerch recalls. “The school district doesn’t want money leaving the district to go to charters. Most Board members see charter schools not as public schools, but as private schools.”
As for the sprawling edifice which contains the local school district administration, Lerch also has plans for that.
“208 Bull Street is a beautiful but lousy building. It was already caving in when I first came to Savannah in 1987,” he says.
Why does Lerch want to get back into the political fray?
“ I feel I have an obligation to use my expertise and training to improve things.”
If you ask Lerch what his main agenda items are, they are simply: “I’d say it’s to work hard to get out of that building at 208 Bull Street, and push to remove criteria for entry to choice schools, but leave SAA and STEM alone.”