Educators Split on Advisory Councils Some Welcome Input, Others See Interference

Article excerpt

ATLANTA -- It will be like having a back-seat driver in every school in Georgia, looking over the board of education's shoulder and offering advice on which way to turn or how fast to go.

By October 2003, each public school in the state has to install a seven-person advisory council in accordance with Gov. Roy Barnes' education reform package, which the legislature approved this year.

That's nearly 11,000 volunteers who can offer recommendations on nearly everything the school does -- from hiring a principal, to setting a budget, to buying textbooks.

Opponents of the school councils have said the councils could be bureaucratic monsters that steal power from elected school boards. But after some initial trepidation, many school officials are warming to the idea.

"I see the councils as folks in our school -- parents, business people, teachers -- all working together," said Thomasville High School Principal Tim Helms. "I'm a firm believer that seven or eight heads are better than one."

Many schools already have something similar to school councils. Thomasville has Positive Parents, for example, and DeKalb County has School-Community Action Teams in about 50 of its schools.

But the governor's school councils are different. They have strict rules for electing members. They must create bylaws. And they have to make sure all council meetings are open to the public.

Perhaps even more significantly, the local board of education is required by law to consider any recommendations from the council. School board members can accept or reject the advice, but they have to listen and respond.

Those rigid, legal requirements are what make school councils a bad idea, said state school Superintendent Linda Schrenko, who opposed the governor's proposal.

"When you have up to 150 councils in some of the larger school districts, [school boards] could literally be meeting day and night, trying to overturn the hundreds of decisions that could be made by these councils," Schrenko said.

Communities need to be involved in schools, but there's no point in creating formal school councils when most schools already have informal committees up and running, Schrenko said.

"All this rigidity . . . goes beyond what the state needs to do," she said.

But many educators and administrators, eager to have parents and business leaders get involved in their schools, are willing to put up with the extra work and legal requirements.

"We're always interested in having more parental involvement," said Chip Sellers, vice chairman of the school board in Dalton. "I personally don't look at this as a threat."

In its initial stages, some school board members around the state were worried the councils would become rival boards of education, said Jerry Plowden, vice chairman of the Dougherty County Board of Education in Albany. …